September 30, 2012 1:55:45 AM
For Columbus High School, it was a bad 28 seconds.
The Falcons' defense play brilliant football Friday night but two big plays in the final 28 seconds of the first half told the story in a 17-7 loss to Southaven in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 1 matchup at Falcon Field.
A busted coverage allowed quarterback Shea Chism to hit Jose Moore for a 23-yard touchdown with 28 seconds left in the half. The Chargers followed that up with a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff as two Falcons muffed a squib kick.
Vincent Hambsch converted a 19-yard field goal as the first half expired to give Southaven a 17-0 halftime lead.
"We had a really big mental letdown right there to end the half," Columbus senior safety Quan Latham said. "We lost the receiver on the touchdown. Then the team let its guard down and we let them score again. Our heads were really dragging going into the locker room. Everybody was down."
Last season, Southaven turned a 14-7 fourth-quarter lead into a 35-7 victory against Columbus. Even though that loss happened early in region play, it eventually be the death blow to the Falcons' playoff hopes.
"I think you saw the growth and maturity of this team tonight," Columbus coach Tony Stanford said. "We kept competing. It was a two-score game there at the end and we were throwing for the end zone. It is a safe bet we would have folded the tent at halftime last season. I am really proud of how hard we played. We just have to execute better."
Columbus' defense had another solid all-around game, sans the final half-minute of the first half. In the second half, the Falcons allowed only two first downs and 75 yards of offense.
"They beat us on two big plays," Columbus senior linebacker Jimmy Cockrell said. "No. 4 (Southaven receiver Jose Moore) is a really good offensive player. We played our hearts out. We just made a couple of mistakes and that did us in."
While Columbus (4-2, 1-1 region) had a few plays get away defensively, the same could be said for the offense. While quarterback Trace Lee and running back Kendrick Conner had solid nights, three turnovers hurt the Falcons.
Columbus was poised to score first until the game's potential first big scoring play got pushed to the turnover column. Conner had broken free of two tackles and raced more than 20 yards, just past the midfield stripe, when Corey Hughey stripped the football and Johnathon Turnmire recovered it.
"The fumble at midfield was the turning point of the entire game," Stanford said. "We were going in for the score. Kendrick will learn from it. You have to protect the ball better in the open field. You can be attacked from any side, so he will learn and do a better job the next time.
"We had broken the first big run of the game and that really hurt not scoring there."
The teams traded seven punts before the fumble. Southaven quickly cashed in, moving 52 yards on three plays.
For Southaven (4-2, 1-1), Chism found Moore on a 28-yard touchdown in the opening stages of the second quarter. Again, confusion on the defensive assignments led to the big play.
"We have to execute better," Latham said. "I thought we were slacking a little bit in practice this week after last week's win (a 14-0 region win at Tupelo). We have to go harder every day in practice. That needs to start this week. Even though we played well as a defense, we have to play even better."
The Chargers extended the lead with their flurry to end the half.
At this game's crossroads, Cockrell said the coaching staff stressed the importance of competing until the final whistle. Latham said the dejected players in the locker room felt inspired by the time the halftime message was completed.
"We have three seniors in the secondary," Cockrell said. "Really everywhere but the defensive line is a bunch of seniors. We have played well this year. We take pride in our defense. We were really down emotionally at the half.
"I thought we really picked it up in the second half and played a lot better. We will have to play this well the whole game (next week) against South Panola."
Columbus broke through on its third possession of the second half. Lee hit DeMarcus Vance on a 38-yard pitch and catch over the middle. Preston Taylor's kick brought the hosts within 17-7 with 3 minutes, 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Falcons mounted one more threat, but Antonio Reed intercepted Lee, who was 18 of 45 for 203 yards. Conner gained 54 rushing yards, snapping his string of two straight 100-yard rushing games.
While the Falcons made their way past the crossroads of Friday's game with a spirited halftime speech, Stanford knows his squad is approaching the crossroads of this season.
"We are going to be fine," Stanford said. "We knew Southaven was going to be tough. We know South Panola is going to be tough. Hopefully, after that, we can get on a little bit of a roll. However, don't think we are not planning on going to South Panola and winning.
"Our defense will give us a chance. If we execute and move the chains, we can get that game. We will go up there, play hard, and believe that we can get it done. We are 1-1 in region play. There is so much that can still happen."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter