October 21, 2012 1:07:48 AM
HORN LAKE -- Columbus High School football coach Tony Stanford challenged his team to win its final four regular-season games.
So far, so good.
Taking a not-going-to-be denied mentality, Columbus moved to 2-0 on the season-ending four-game stretch with a 14-0 victory against Horn Lake on Friday night in a Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 1 game. The Falcons posted their fourth shutout of the season, and their second straight 14-0 victory.
"Our coaches told us to take everything personal this year," Columbus senior linebacker Larry Williams said. "Our goal is get to as many three-and-outs as possible. When we get the shutout, we have done our job."
Columbus' defense has done the job in shutouts of Aberdeen (21-0), Tupelo (14-0), DeSoto Central (14-0), and Horn Lake (14-0). Columbus also didn't allow a touchdown in a 9-6 win against New Hope. The Falcons haven't allowed more than 26 points this season, and only South Panola and West Point have had three offensive touchdowns.
"The defense works because of how well they practice," Stanford said. "You see it every day in practice. They play physical. They play assignment football. They also play smart. They do a great job of learning what we teach them in practice and carrying it over to the game."
With the win, Columbus improved to 6-3 and 3-2 in the region. The Falcons are attempting to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Columbus most likely would clinch a berth with a victory against Olive Branch on Friday at home or the following week in the regular-season finale at Grenada. Winning both games removes all doubt.
A season ago, Columbus tied for third in the region but failed to reach the postseason based on a tiebreaker. The Falcons know four victories to the end the season would allow them to skip scoreboard watching in the regular-season finale.
"We adopted the must-win mentality earlier this month," Columbus junior running back Kendrick Conner said. "After we played South Panola so close, we knew we could win the rest of our games if we cut out mistakes.
"We knew if we won our final four games we would be in the playoffs. That is something Columbus High School hasn't done in a long time. We set that as our No. 1 goal to start the season. With two games left, we can still reach that goal."
If Columbus' defense plays like it did Friday night, the team always will have a chance. Horn Lake (2-7, 0-5) had three first downs and 48 yards offense. Only 14 offensive snaps generated positive yardage for the Eagles, who didn't move past their 45-yard line.
"We have the same game plan every week," Columbus junior defensive tackle Corey Brown said. "We try to establish the momentum for this team. We know if we make big plays, we have a chance to win. We try to get into the backfield on every play."
Stanford noted critical injuries to the defensive unit as well. Several young players have had to step up in the stretch run.
"We have a really good front seven," Stanford said. "We are working hard at the secondary part of it. We had three sophomores back there tonight and only one senior. Really back there we are building for the future."
Columbus overcame a difficult first half on offense. The Falcons lost possession on a fumbled snap, had another bad exchange on a snap, and had a bad snap on a punt attempt. Quarterback Trace Lee tripped coming out of center on one play, and the Falcons also had a couple of costly penalties.
Still, the Falcons grabbed a 7-0 halftime lead on a 79-yard, 12-play drive. Lee hit Keith Brooks on a 35-yard pass play. It appeared Brooks had reached the end zone, but he was ruled out of bounds at the Horn Lake 5. It took four plays before Christion Petty finally plowed in from 1 yard on fourth down.
Columbus had a 41-19 first-half advantage in plays and a 7-0 lead.
"The style we play is not pretty," Stanford said. "But I will take an ugly win any day. If your defense can withstand everything then eventually you are going to put up some points."
The Falcons did just that with a much-improved offensive effort in the second half. Despite two second-half turnovers, Columbus put the game away with a 46-yard, five-play drive set up by an interception by sophomore Donsha Walker.
Conner had all five rushes, including a 3-yard touchdown run in the opening minute of the final quarter. The junior back led the way with 35 rushes for 177 yards.
"The offensive line had a great game," Conner said. "That is why we had success. Offensively, we are not where we want to be, but we have the mind-set we will find a way to win the game. We ran the ball well tonight and controlled the game."
Columbus ran 80 plays, compared to 34 for Horn Lake.
"With 80 plays, you would have thought we would have put up some more points," Stanford said.
These days, the Falcons can usually make 14 points work. Now, the challenge is to find a way two more Fridays.
"Four wins in a row," Stanford said. "We challenged the kids to make that happen. We have come out there and worked real hard to reach that goal. We are halfway there. These kids understand we have two more to get.
"I think we are going to come out and play our best game against Olive Branch. Each game matters now. We really need two more wins."
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter