September 8, 2013 2:36:43 AM
Columbus High School senior running back Kendrick Conner was well aware of the tight spot his team was in Friday night.
Leading rusher Kevin Jackson had been disqualified from the game for a flagrant personal foul and the Falcons had slopped their way to a fourth-quarter deficit against county rival New Hope High.
Conner then took the Falcons under his wings, sparking a late fourth-quarter rally with some monster running. Christian Petty scored the game winner from 1 yard out as Columbus defeated New Hope 20-16 at Falcon Field.
"It was a county rivalry game and we really couldn't afford to lose," said Conner, who rushed for a team-high 76 yards on 20 carries. "We just couldn't lose to New Hope because that would not have been a good thing. In the fourth quarter, we had to step it up."
Columbus coach Tony Stanford likes the attitude and work ethic of his talented senior, Conner. Now it is just a matter of getting him running the right direction.
"When he runs north to south, he is as good as we've got," Stanford said. "That's the deal. In the second half, we got him going north and south and you could tell that made a major difference."
Columbus (1-1) ran in reverse for most of the second half. After getting a huge lift from the return of senior quarterback Trace Lee, the Falcons built a halftime lead for a second straight week. Lee left the second half of last week's 21-10 loss to Noxubee County with a head injury.
After Jackson quarterbacked the first two series of the game, Lee came in and executed a 77-yard, six-play drive to end the first half. When Lee hit Donsha Walker for a 14-yard touchdown, the Falcons held a 14-7 halftime lead.
"That drive was a thing of beauty," Stanford said. "We did everything right. In the third quarter, we did everything wrong."
Columbus fumbled on back-to-back possessions and New Hope strung together back-to-back scoring drives for a 16-14 lead. The next drive, though, was the killer. The second fumble set New Hope up on the Columbus 12-yard line. No offense was generated and a 22-yard field goal try was missed.
"A huge drive in the game," New Hope coach Shawn Gregory said. "This team is still learning how to finish. It is one more step to take to the point where you are winning these types of games. We have the players to do it. They have the attitude to do it. I think we will be ready get over the hump by the time region play starts."
With a reprieve, Columbus seized the lead for good two possessions later. Most of the new life pumped into the Falcons came from the feet of Conner and the solid all-around defensive play of Damian Moore.
A week after wreaking havoc against Noxubee County, Moore had a forced fumble and an interception against New Hope.
"The best thing about defense is you know you can make the one play that can turn the game around," Moore said. "We couldn't make that play last week but we could this week. Now we got to keep going and make that play more often to become a complete team."
Stanford will take the defensive bright spots where he can get them. He knows Moore, a senior outside linebacker, is emerging as a leader.
"He just makes plays," Stanford said, "and he makes them all over the field."
New Hope junior quarterback Brady Davis also made plays. Davis threw for 338 yards, rushed for a touchdown, and threw touchdown. Still, three turnovers and 10 penalties were too much for the Trojans to overcome.
"Part of the growth process is eliminating mistakes that will get you beat," Gregory said.
On this night, the Falcons weren't able to eliminate such mistakes. However, they were able to control them. Columbus had two fumbles, Lee threw an interception, and Columbus missed an extra point and had eight penalties, including three personal fouls.
"Our goal is the state championship," Conner said. "Everybody plays to be there at the end. We know what this team is capable of doing. We just have to put it all together, eliminate mistakes, and be more consistent. We want to prove that last year's team (which lost in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs) was not the end. We want to take this thing higher."
Stanford said the plan was to get Jackson some work as starting quarterback after he was pressed into duty last week in Lee's absence. Stanford said Jackson's performance was commendable and that he will be more game ready if needed again later on in the season. Lee entered in a 7-7 tie.
"It was great getting Trace back out there because that got everybody a lift," Conner said.
The Falcons carried that lift into the locker room. When a spark was needed defensively, Alex Lipscomb, Jalen Stewart, and Moore provided it. The final lift came from Conner, and it came when the Falcons needed it most.
Columbus will turn its thoughts to West Point High and the highly touted Aeris Williams, who has made life miserable for defenses this season.
"It will be a challenge," Stanford said. "It is easier to get ready for a challenge like that after a win. Last week, we didn't finish. This week, we did finish. We talked all week about finishing. I am not happy with how we played for four quarters. I am thrilled at how we finished.
"As for as next week goes, I know one thing. West Point won't throw it on every down."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter