By Adam Minichino/The Commercial Dispatch (MCT)
The challenge has been set.
Judging from the bad feeling in the stomach of Damian Baker, there is a good chance the Columbus High School football team will respond.
If it doesn’t, Columbus might have to wait another year for a chance to end its losing streak to South Panola.
Antonio Conner rushed for 189 yards and scored three touchdowns in the first half to lead two-time defending state champion South Panola to a 21-6 victory against Columbus in a Class 6A, Region 1 game.
“We lost so many good football players (18) from a year ago, and he is a great player,” South Panola coach Lance Pogue said. “He is a junior, and he does everything for us. He returns kicks, he plays defense, he plays quarterback, tailback. He is a big-play guy. He made some big ones tonight.”
Conner scored on runs of 16, 48, and 46 yards to help the Tigers (4-3, 2-1) rebound from a loss to Olive Branch last week.
Columbus (4-3, 1-2) scored on a 3-yard pass from Trace Lee to DeMarcus Vance with 1 minute, 36 seconds left in the game.
Moments later, Columbus coach Tony Stanford repeatedly told his players to keep their heads up and said the team’s next goal was to win three more region games to put it in a position to be one of the four teams from the region to advance to the playoffs.
“I think they will (respond),” Stanford said. “We didn’t play bad tonight. We broke down three times defensively and they scored. Offensively, we had our opportunities, but we made a mistake here or there and didn’t put it in. We still are making a mistake at a crucial time.”
The biggest mistake might have set the tone for the night. South Panola gained only 1 yard and committed an illegal procedure penalty in the first four plays and was forced to punt. But a roughing the punter penalty that followed a low snap gave the Tigers a first down.
Conner was then forced to score twice to get one. His first score — a 12-yard run — was wiped out by an illegal participation penalty. It didn’t matter, though, as he scored on the next play from the 16.
“It gave us a shot in the arm and we scored on that,” Pogue said. “We needed a break, and we have kind of been snake-bit this year in the break area. It is kind of unfortunate for them, but I’ll take that every time, anything to give you a spark. I thought it energized our team.”
Said Stanford, “In all my coaching, any time you give a good team a second shot they always score. There was no reason for it. We had a kid trying hard, but he screw up. You give it back to them and they go down and score.”
Columbus clicked early in the passing game, but South Panola dialed up its pass rush — thanks in large part to No. 99, senior Issac Gross, who has committed to play at the University of Mississippi — to derail the Falcons.
“No. 99 is a SEC football player, and he is playing his best right now,” Pogue said. “He has done that all year and his whole career. We have to continue to have that.”
Conner did the rest, racing 48 yards on an option play at the 11:48 mark of the second quarter. He added a 46-yard run with 33.8 seconds to go before halftime for a dagger that deflated Columbus.
“He is a good athlete,” Stanford said. “It is hard to judge how good he really is because you don’t know where he is going to play — quarterback, running back, in the secondary. He is talented athlete. He is the type of good athlete they always have and tend to have a boatload of them. They just have one of them this year.”
Baker, who rushed for 54 yards on 12 carries, took Stanford’s message to heart because not only does he want to get a chance to compete in the playoffs, but he also wants a chance to play South Panola again and end a losing streak that grew to 13 with the latest setback.
“We have one of the best defenses in the state of Mississippi,” Baker said. “Sometimes another player on another team can make plays that a defense can’t stop. They broke down on three plays and offensively we didn’t come behind them and score after the scored.”
Baker lamented the penalty on the block punt because he said the stop had the entire team fired up. He said Friday night just seemed like one of those nights when something just didn’t go right for the Falcons.
Despite the disappointment, Baker agreed with Stanford in saying the Falcons would respond from their second 6A-1 loss in a row and do what they need to do to get into the playoffs.
“I am confident about it,” Baker said. “We want it bad. Some nights are not just your nights. It seemed like it was one of those nights when something just didn’t go right.”
Stanford hopes that journey back starts next week with a trip to DeSoto Central.
“I think our seniors are going to step forward,” Stanford said. “We have good seniors who want to win and they’re going to play hard. In the second half, Baker ran the ball as hard as I have ever seen because he wants to win. We have other kids just like that who want to win.”
Pogue said his offense is a work in progress, which should make what he called a “wide open” 6A race even more interesting. South Panola hurt itself with 13 penalties for 106 yards, but Columbus couldn’t capitalize.
South Panola finished with 259 yards total offense. Junior quarterback Tevis Flowers didn’t complete a pass.
Cedric Jackson and Lee combined for 15 completions and 154 passing yards. Vance led the Falcons with six catches for 48 yards.