November 4, 2010 8:12:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- For all the improvement Starkville High School''s football team has experienced this season, the Yellow Jackets find themselves in a familiar playoff bind entering the final week of the regular season.
Riding a three-game losing skid, including two games decided in the last 30 seconds of regulation, Starkville (5-5, 3-3 Class 6A, Region 1) must beat rival Columbus (3-7, 1-5) Friday at home and have Olive Branch beat Tupelo to clinch the fourth region spot.
Last season, the Yellow Jackets needed to beat the Falcons on the final week to earn a playoff spot.
Despite Starkville''s marked progression on both sides of the ball and quarterback Jaquez Johnson''s monumental improvement, the team feels unfortunate not to be in better shape and in control of its destiny after dropping two region games by a combined five points. Four of the Yellow Jackets'' five losses have been by a touchdown or less.
"It''s extremely ironic," senior tackle Chris Prater said. "I laughed about it with one of my teammates after the game that we''re in the same predicament."
In another twist of irony, the Falcons find themselves with the same record entering the Starkville game as they did last season.
Columbus hopes to avoid another finale letdown against Starkville, which escaped Columbus with a 29-28 win last season. In that game, Starkville executed a hook-and-ladder for a score, came up with a fumble in the final minutes, and converted a two-point conversion for the winning point.
Columbus also lost at Starkville 29-21 in 2008, and Falcons coach Tony Stanford, who was then the team''s defensive coordinator, said there were discouraging similarities in both games.
"I think the biggest thing is we''ve felt the last two years we''ve gone into the fourth quarter ahead and in the end let them beat us," Stanford said. "We don''t want to let that happen this year. We feel like we gave the game to them the least two years."
After winning two of their first three games, the Falcons haven''t carried that start into region play. They have scored just seven points in the last two games. Two weeks ago, Columbus lost to Horn Lake 3-0.
The Falcons will play this week without offensive lineman Justin Verner and wideout Deonte Jones, who has 531 receiving yards this season.
Injuries have been the team''s tallest hurdle this season, as they''ve played without starting middle linebacker Chris Conner for most of the season.
"We haven''t played the same kids two games in a row," Stanford said. "We''ve got offensive linemen who''ve missed two or three games, and it''s hard to get a continuity going with so many injuries. We lost so many early, and then every week we''ve got somebody out.
"That''s some of it, but again, we''re still a young ball club. Four or five seniors is all we''re playing. Some of the young ones didn''t come along as fast as we thought. We feel like we had a chance to win three more ball games, but it just didn''t happen."
Columbus hasn''t made the playoffs since 2006, when it upset Northwest Rankin in the first round before falling to eventual state champion South Panola.
Starkville can ill afford to look ahead to potential first-round playoff opponents Madison Central or Northwest Rankin, both of which sit atop Region 2.
The Yellow Jackets could be without ailing starting running back Garrett Smith, who played just three plays against South Panola due to an injured ankle. He has been limited to walkthroughs in practice and is a game-time decision.
Should Smith be unavailable, the Yellow Jackets'' ground game would take a considerable hit, especially with Johnson protecting a sore throwing shoulder.
Starkville coach Jamie Mitchell said Johnson''s shoulder isn''t a problem for the running. Wideout Shaquille Hill said the Jackets are compensating for any lack of zip on Johnson''s throws.
"A few plays in the South Panola game, we adjusted some of our routes and some of my spacing so it wouldn''t be as far a throw," Hill said. "It helped, and (Johnson) could still get it there. It helps to save him a little bit, and he''s been doing some therapeutic things to help it get back to 100 percent."
Senior Night for Starkville will see 22 players feature at Yellow Jacket Stadium for the last time. The Jackets would like to give their fans an uplifting home win, as they''re 1-3 at home this season.
Mitchell said that won''t be an easy task against the Falcons.
"They''re probably as talented as anybody," Mitchell said. "I told somebody earlier today, you wonder when that game is going to come went they put it all together. We just hope it''s not Friday."
1. MSU offense gearing up for showdown with Texas A&M COLLEGE SPORTS
3. Jones leads new-look defensive line for top-ranked EMCC COLLEGE SPORTS
4. Heritage Academy hits critical stretch of schedule HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
5. Youthful Pickens Academy gearing up for stretch run HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS