Rock-solid defenses offset inconsistent offenses Friday night, but the Columbus High School football team’s special teams made the difference in a 21-0 victory against Aberdeen in the season opener for both teams.
Jimmy Cockrell broke open a scoreless tie late in the second quarter with a 42-yard punt return for a touchdown. Senior Quan Latham then set up Columbus’ third score with a 39-yard punt return led to a 1-yard scoring plunge by quarterback Trace Lee early in the third period.
In between the scores, Corey Brown’s fumble recovery on the second-half kickoff set up a 35-yard touchdown toss from Lee to Meunta Verner for a 13-0 lead with 1 minute, 21 seconds gone in the third quarter.
“Our special teams were the turning point,” said Columbus coach Tony Stanford, who has never lost to Aberdeen as an assistant coach or head coach at Louisville and Columbus. “That (seven-minute) stretch late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter opened things up a bit, and it was the special team’s play that made the difference in this win.”
First-year Aberdeen coach Mark Bray agreed wholeheartedly.
“Too many breakdowns in the kicking game killed us,” Bray said. “We’re playing about 18 or 19 players on offense and defense, so we tried to give some of our young backups a shot on the punt team, but that’s going to change. There won’t be any more jogging down the field on punts, that’s for sure.”
Both coaches were impressed with their team’s defenses.
“Our defensive unit played well,” Stanford said. “We thought we’d have a pretty good defense coming into the season, and it didn’t disappoint us.”
Said Bray, “With the exception of the touchdown pass, our defense played great. Columbus is a 6A school, and they ran a lot of kids in and out of the game, where we only have about 18 or 19 who are ready to play, so to hold them to just one long touchdown pass, plus the sneak, I thought was pretty good.”
As expected this early in the season, the offenses struggled as both teams finished in a virtual dead heat statistics-wise – Columbus with 162 total yards (106 rushing, 56 passing) and Aberdeen with 159 (100, 59).
Columbus averaged 3.4 yards per rush, while Aberdeen averaged just 2.3 yards on 44 carries — 24 of which went for zero or negative yards.
“We’ve got some experience back offensively, but it’s apparent we’ve got some work to do in that area,” Bray said.
Both teams’ meager statistics aside, a second difference-maker for Columbus was turnovers. The Falcons had four interceptions, three recovered fumbles, and a punt block by Gemriah Williams, which was recovered by Larry Williams. Aberdeen had two fumble recoveries and no interceptions.
Latham paced Columbus with two interceptions, as Rashad Meeks and Cockrell had one apiece, while Birmingham Minor High transfer Jalen Stewart, Larry Williams, and Brown all had one fumble recovery for the Falcons.
“We lost a lot of opportunities by turning the ball over,” Bray said. “You only get so many chances and when you give up the ball like that it’s tough to win.”
The Falcons wasted several scoring opportunities in the first half, taking over at the Bulldogs 33 on their first possession and at the 29 on their second possession. But Aberdeen’s defense forced a punt and a missed field goal.
Late in the first quarter, a 24-yard scamper by Kevin Jackson coupled with a 15-yard horse-collar penalty and a 9-yard pass completion to Keith Brooks gave the Falcons a third scoring opportunity, but a low center snap on a Michael Sturdivant field goal attempt killed the drive at the Aberdeen 24.
On Aberdeen’s ensuing series, Larry Williams’ punt block recovery gave Columbus a first down at Aberdeen’s 35. Jackson gained 17 yards on two carries to move the ball to the 18, but a fumble at the 10 was kicked into the end zone, where Sammie Burroughs picked it up and brought it out to the 13.
Two plays later, Stewart recovered a fumble at the 15, but a dropped fourth-down pass in the end zone cost the Falcons yet another score.
Seconds later, Meeks’ interception gave his offensive mates the ball at the Bulldogs’ 39, but two incomplete passes and a pair of penalties pushed the Falcons back to midfield and a fourth-down punting situation.
Incredibly enough, yet another fumble on the punt return was recovered by Larry Williams at the 11, but Aberdeen’s Aaron McMillian tipped Lee’s fourth-down pass away in the end zone to end that threat.
A pair of incompletions sandwiched around a Chico Harrison no-gainer thwarted Aberdeen on its ensuing possession and set the stage for Cockrell’s 42-yard punt return for a touchdown with 3:27 left in the first half.
Undaunted, the Bulldogs responded with a five-play march to the Columbus 29 only to turn the ball over on a Latham interception in the end zone two and a half minutes later.
Aberdeen’s misfortunes continued early in the third quarter when Brown recovered a fumble on the second half kickoff and Verner hauled in Lee’s 35-yard scoring toss for the Falcons’ second score, and then Latham’s 39-yard punt return to the 1 set up the games’ final touchdown – Lee’s sneak two minutes later. Sturdivant added the point after kick, his third of the contest.
Down 21-0, Aberdeen finally dented the scoring column on a 39-yard Josh Williams to Jeremy Brandon touchdown toss, but the play was nullified on an illegal forward pass penalty.
Fittingly, the game ended on Cockrell’s interception in the end zone.
Jackson, the Falcons’ workhorse whose father played at Aberdeen in the mid-80s, rushed for 96 yards on 17 carries.
Harrison led Aberdeen with 56 yards on an even dozen tries.
Columbus (1-0) has next week off. Aberdeen (0-1) will travel to Shannon.