September 10, 2017 1:14:13 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Starkville High School football team held more than a four-touchdown lead when Columbus had back-to-back tackles for loss to get a defensive stop Friday night.
Two Falcons high-fived after combining for the third-down tackle. As the defense trotted off the field, a couple of coaches met some players for chest bumping, fist pumping, and high-fiving.
The exchange was an example of the passion Randal Montgomery has used to build the program in his four seasons as head coach. The Falcons will need that passion to battle back from an 0-3 start.
Malik Brown ran for two scores and threw for three more to help Starkville gain 363 yards en route to a 44-7 victory at Yellow Jacket Stadium.
"We aren't going to lie down for anybody," Columbus senior defensive end Josh Gray said. "That is not what this program does. We are going to fight for four quarters. We are going to compete every time the ball is snapped. That is what we do. The younger guys have to see that intensity from the veterans.
"We have to fight for everything. That is the only way this gets turned around."
Columbus has struggled against state championship contenders West Point (Class 5A), Noxubee County (Class 4A), and Starkville (Class 6A), but Montgomery said Columbus continues to compete. In fact, he felt the Falcons' competitiveness wasn't reflected in the final score.
"If we didn't have some fight, this game would have gotten really out of hand," Montgomery said. "Instead, our guys fought, battled, played hard. Those are expectations. You have to have a program where the kids know they are going to do that or they aren't going to play."
Columbus entered the game with 154 yards offense in the first two games. It allowed 11 sacks against Noxubee County.
In last week's bye week, junior quarterback Laterius Stowers worked on getting the ball away quicker. The Falcons also adjusted their blocking scheme on the offensive line.
Against Starkville, Columbus focused more on throwing to a location instead of waiting for a receiver to break open.
"I think there is a higher comfort level with what we are trying to do," Montgomery said. "I don't think you can consider it wholesale changes. Instead, (we) continued to practice hard, (and we're) continuing to work on the things this team is capable of doing."
Montgomery said the team entered the game coming off the best week of practice this season.
Still, Starkville scored on three of the game's first five possessions to take a 20-0 lead. The Yellow Jackets led 30-0 at halftime.
Stowers threw two interceptions in the first half. Columbus also lost a fumble. The turnovers led to 10 points.
"It's the little things on offense and defense," Gray said. "We are close to being a good football team. I don't think the average person sees that, but we do. We are the ones busting it every day in practice. It's close to turning around. We just have to do the little things better. We can't afford that one extra penalty, that one drop on offense, that one missed interception on defense.
"We have to make every play to have any chance. That's frustrating, but we know we are close."
The struggles on offense have led to a field position nightmare. Jordan Randle has provided a spark at kick returner, but he needs help in that category.
Columbus took possession at its 20, 20, 17, 28, 12, 17, 1, and 32 in the first half.
The inability to sustain drives also has zapped the energy of the defense.
Even thought Starkville had 363 yards, it has two scoring plays of 40 or more yards. Columbus didn't force a turnover.
"That is what is hurting us the most," Gray said. "We haven't had the takeaways we had last season. If we could have a big play early in a game, it might provide us a spark."
Columbus had a season-best 186 yards. The Falcons drove 82 yards on 10 plays in the third quarter. Stowers had the team's first passing touchdown when he hit Devarkas Ramsey in the corner for a 6-yard touchdown pass on a fade pattern.
Columbus will play host to Vicksburg in the home opener Friday night. After winning 10 games in 2016, the Gators are winless this season.
"With no disrespect to Vicksburg, it will be good to play a team without a (ranking) by its name," Montgomery said. "I don't think anybody has had a tougher three-game stretch in the state than we have. I am looking forward to practice Monday. I want to see the response in the week ahead.
"I want to see the guys compete on an even playing field with somebody we can match up with at just about every position. There has not been lack of effort. These kids have worked as hard as the playoff teams from the last couple of seasons."
With region play right around the corner, Columbus will need to speed up its progression if it wants to return to the playoffs.
"Our fans are going to be surprised," Gray said. "We are going to get this thing going sooner than later."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Scott Walters on Twitter @dispatchscott
Scott is sports copy editor and reporter
4. Oregon State denies MSU shot at title series COLLEGE SPORTS
5. Offutt Air Force Base supports MSU in Omaha COLLEGE SPORTS