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Columbus will rely on its defense to get back to playoffs

 

Scott Walters

 

What a strange football season this has been for Columbus High School. 

 

Last season, Columbus finished 7-5 and made the Mississippi High School Activities Association's Class 6A playoffs for the first time since 2005. 

 

That Columbus team played consistently and beat seven teams it was better than. The Falcons ran the ball with authority. They built early leads, keep the chains moving, and turned matters over to a stifling defense. 

 

There was a comfort level in knowing the team had a great defense, an acceptable offense, and could beat anybody in the state if it broke a big play on offense or if the defense or special teams scored. 

 

This season's squad has been anything but predictable. 

 

NEW FACES 

 

The good news in the offseason was Columbus moved from Class 6A, Region 1 to Region 2. Suddenly, Columbus no longer had to beat South Panola, Olive Branch, and Southaven for a region title. Columbus was 0-12 against that trio in the past four seasons. Each year, Columbus found itself on a perpetual hamster ring, trying to be good enough to be fourth team in the region by beating the remaining members. 

 

Columbus figured to take flight this season. Madison Central and Starkville were the only traditional powers in the new region. It looked like a trade-up for Columbus from the DeSoto/Panola Country triangle of death. 

 

However, Columbus (4-4, 2-2 region) is in a tight spot again, battling its tail feathers off to become the fourth-place team in the region, which most likely would mean a game against South Panola in the first round of the playoffs. Three-straight wins would man mean third place in the region. Two more wins would mean fourth place in the region, unless one fairly remote scenario plays out. 

 

Columbus will play Friday at Madison Central. Last season, Madison Central beat Columbus 41-7 in the first round of the playoffs. This season, the Jaguars probably aren't as good. Unfortunately, it appears the Falcons may be in the same boat. The regular season then ends with games at Murrah and at home against Warren Central. 

 

What gives Columbus is the play of its defense. In its last two games, Columbus has held Northwest Rankin (in a 13-6 loss) and Greenville-Weston (in a 37-7 win) to 79 yards of total offense. Columbus has been quite salty on defense all season, but other stories have overshadowed the play of that unit. Columbus has allowed 14 points to Noxubee County, 16 points to New Hope, 14 points to West Point, 21 points to Louisville, 35 points to Starkville (28 in the second half, including two late scores on short fields), 21 points to Clinton (in a one-sided win), seven points to Northwest Rankin, and zero points to Greenville-Weston. 

 

This is a unit that held West Point running back Aeris Williams to 46 rushing yards. Williams went for 301 yards Friday night in a victory against Lake Cormorant. Columbus has been challenged by some of the area's top offenses and has continued to deliver. 

 

The secondary was a question mark with its youth. Alex Lipscomb, Donsha Walker, and Kiren Sharp have helped fill the void left by Jimmy Cockrell and Quan Latham. The linebacking corps has grown steadily. Senior Damian Moore has gone from a name on a depth chart to one of the area's premier game-changers. Jalen Stewart, Corey Brown, and Kris Relliford have anchored a stingy defensive line. In the past two weeks, the defense has held the opponent to zero or negative yards on 37 snaps. 

 

The unit has struggled to make the big-time, game-changing interception and/or defensive score that last year's unit did. However, this unit has been built on the tradition of physical, hard-nosed football that makes it virtually impossible to run against. The only teams that have had success against Columbus have done it by hitting the deep ball or by taking advantage of short fields after turnovers. 

 

FINAL RUN 

 

On offense, Columbus is a work in process. Some of the growth has been slowed by two injuries to quarterback Trace Lee, who was forced out of losses to Noxubee County (concussion) and Louisville (ankle). With little depth at quarterback, Lee's absence in both losses hurt dearly. Place-kicker Anthony Maleta missed the Northwest Rankin loss with a hamstring tweak. Columbus spent all night in the red zone and needed him dearly. 

 

Columbus has the intangibles for a stretch run. Lee is a veteran signal caller who can manage a game and throw the football with accuracy. Maleta is a freshman, but he is the type of kicker a Class 6A school needs, as he can hit consistently from as far as 40 yards. Kendrick Conner is a hard-nosed runner who has blossomed. Kevin Jackson gives the squad a dual threat when it runs the option. The receivers are serviceable and can win on this level. Again, the Falcons would prefer to run the ball.  

 

Defensively, the team can win on this level. The weaknesses however are just as glaring.  

 

The offensive unit fumbles the ball way too much. Columbus will deliver a false start penalty or holding call at the worst possible time. The kick coverage -- according to coach Tony Stanford -- is the worst he has seen. 

 

A team that beats West Point 41-14 shouldn't trail Greenville-Weston 7-2 at halftime. 

 

Now is the time for the Falcons to get it together. The team has three more Fridays realize its potential or it could go home for the season. 

 

Scott Walters is a reporter for the Dispatch. Contact him at swalters@cdispatch.com and follow him on Twitter at @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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