November 11, 2012 1:11:49 AM
MADISON -- For Columbus High School, reality dealt a harsh blow Friday night.
When it comes to the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A playoffs, the Falcons realized they are good enough to make the party but not quite good enough to sit at the head table.
Madison Central sharpened its claws and made quick work of Columbus in the opening round of the North State playoffs. The Jaguars scored on the game's first six possessions and cruised to a 41-7 win.
"Madison Central is probably the best team we have faced this year, but what you saw out there was not Falcon football," Columbus junior quarterback Trace Lee said. "The scoreboard does not show what kind of football team we had. It just was not our night."
Madison Central (9-3) will now face Olive Branch (11-1) in a mammoth showdown with a North State championship spot on the line Friday night.
Columbus finishes the season at 7-5. The Falcons were playing a playoff game for the first time since 2005.
"It feels good leaving here knowing you helped your school become winners again," said Columbus senior offensive lineman, Jake Thomas, who will next be playing at Mississippi State University. "We had a tough night, but we know what kind of season we had."
Columbus has relied on a stingy defense all season. The Falcons defense showed its usual mettle, holding Madison Central to field goals on each of the first two possessions. Eventually, the initial sparks from the Jaguars turned into a house fire.
Madison Central patched together scoring drives of 91, 51 and 67 yards in the second quarter. By the time, Columbus managed its first first down of the contest, the brand new scoreboard/video board in the end zone showed the hosts ahead 27-0.
"I don't know if we were still on that high (of clinching a playoff berth) or not," Columbus coach Tony Stanford said. "I do know we had a great week of practice. I thought the kids were excited, motivated and prepared for what Madison Central was going to do.
"Perhaps, the big scoreboard and the bright lights of the playoffs did do us in a little bit. We had some nervousness early and could never recover."
Columbus managed two scoring threats in the game's final half.
The Falcons drove 45 yards to the Jaguars' 24-yard line.
This drive stalled when Azariah Thomas missed a 41-yard field goal.
In the game's final minutes, the Falcons drove 93 yards on five plays to break up the shutout.
Quan Latham scored on a 41-yard run.
"To our kids' credit, they kept competing," Stanford said. "They played hard the entire game. That is something we have stressed since we got here.
"It is obvious that we have turned the corner. Now we have to find a way to close the gap against some of the elite teams in the state."
The Falcons finished with seven straight wins for a second straight year. Columbus finished with four region wins for a second straight year. In each of those seasons, Columbus lost to region rivals South Panola, Olive Branch and Southaven.
"We showed we can compete with some of the top teams in the state this year," Lee said. "Our job is now to prove that we can beat some of those teams. We have good chemistry. We like each other. We believe in each other. Now, the hard work really begins as we get ready to take that next step."
Lee should emerge as the go-to leader during this upcoming off-season. The Falcons developed a passing threat this season. However, Columbus will have to have more success in the air and will also have to find a way to be balanced to take that next step.
"We relied on the defense a little too much this year," Stanford said. "The defense was great. It was physical. It was hard-nosed. If you take this game out of the equation, they really had a phenomenal year. However, we have to find ways to keep them off the field more and to give them a break."
Columbus was overmatched on both sides of the ball Friday night. Lee was sacked 10 times. The Falcons ran the ball 32 times for slightly better than a yard per rush.
"They didn't really do anything that was a big surprise to us," Thomas said. "We knew they were fast and we knew they were big."
Senior quarterback Jake Schwartz also has numerous targets in both the backfield and in the receiving corps.
Madison Central showed the type of depth and balance that Columbus will continue to pursue.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter