September 29, 2013 1:15:34 AM
The Columbus High School football team had its Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A, Region 2 opener against rival Starkville right where it wanted Friday night.
Unfortunately, the Falcons then had to play the second half.
After battling to a halftime time, Starkville dominated the final 24 minutes and ran the read option to near perfection en route to a 35-13 victory at Falcon Field.
Behind a strong running punch from quarterback Princeton Jones and running back Jacquez Horsley, Starkville found the going much easier in the second half. As the Yellow Jackets started to move the chains, it allowed Jones to find Raphael Leonard for back-to-back touchdown passes on two of the first three possessions of the second half.
"We didn't stay disciplined, and we didn't stay on our assignments in the second half," Columbus senior linebacker Damian Moore said. "It is frustrating because we are a lot better team than we showed. There were no surprises. They took it right at us."
Columbus (2-3, 0-1 region) has won in similar fashion each year under Tony Stanford. The Falcons have used an opportunistic offense, led by a power running game, which eats a lot of time. Columbus complements that with a swarming defense that is capable of producing scores.
The plan worked to perfection for a half. In less than 40 minutes of real time, the teams battled to a 7-7 halftime tie. Columbus scored when Alex Lipscomb returned a muffed punt 39 yards for a touchdown. Starkville scored in the final minute of the first half on a 15-yard run by Jones.
Suddenly, Starkville (3-2, 1-0) found the answers in a 63-yard, five-play drive which lasted only 47 seconds.
"We have really struggled against the option," Stanford said. "Madison Central and South Panola come to mind. We haven't been disciplined enough to stop it. It is simply staying on your man and completing your assignment. It has given us fits. That was a concern going in.
"The game was there for the taking at halftime. In the second half, Starkville beat us in every phase of the game."
Starkville scored on two of its first three possessions of the second half and Columbus was in serious trouble. Jones hit Leonard for a 6-yard touchdown. He followed that up with a 24-yard scoring reception.
"They did what we expected and we just didn't execute," Moore said. "Every day in practice we work to get better, and this time it just didn't work out. It would be different if they were a lot better than we are. The first half was great. We didn't do our job in the second."
Columbus cut the deficit to 21-13 after Anthony Maleta hit field goals from 40 and 42 yards. However, the Falcons were held out of the end zone and didn't score an offensive touchdown for the first time this season.
"We got a little bit of the big head (after a 41-14 victory against West Point two weeks ago)," Columbus senior running back/quarterback Kevin Jackson said. "I think you saw tonight what happens when a team comes out not really ready to play. We weren't mentally sharp like we need to be. We don't have a lot of room for error. Everything has to be in place for us to be successful."
Jackson drew the start at quarterback. Following a precedent established in a victory against New Hope, Jackson worked the first couple of series before giving way to regular starter Trace Lee.
Working his way back from a knee injury he suffered last week in a loss at Louisville, Lee provided a spark but couldn't help his mates to long-term success.
Perhaps no drive was bigger than a Columbus possession late in the second quarter. The Falcons drove 64 yards to the Starkville 16. Already leading 7-0, the Falcons had the home crowd energized only to see the drive end when Starkville's Derion Ford recovered a fumbled exchange from quarterback to running back.
The Falcons still held the lead, but they had lost a firm grasp of the game's flow and direction.
"What this team is missing is a killer instinct," Stanford said. "The last couple of teams around here had that killer instinct. This is a great group of kids. They work hard and are going to win a lot of games this year. But their demeanor is different. The killer instinct is not there. We have to work hard to change that before it gets too late."
Jackson and his teammates are ready to buy into what Stanford is selling. While a loss to a longtime rival stings, Monday will bring a new work week. Six region games remain. The Falcons know the potential is there to win each one.
"It's not like we are bad a team," Jackson said. "There will be another day, and we will come out and play a lot better."
Follow Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott.
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
2. Freshmen players still performing late in MSU season COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Chism looks for breakthrough at Bullring LOCAL SPORTS