STARKVILLE — No coach likes to lose games, but all coaches like to have specific things they can point to that need improvement in practice.
That’s the position Starkville High School football coach Chris Jones finds himself in this week, as the Yellow Jackets’ 28-0 win over Columbus on Friday night doesn’t reflect the problems they had throughout the game.
“We didn’t play great, but we’re young,” Jones said. “We just got a little sloppy. We probably had more penalty yards than rushing or passing yards.”
Jones is exaggerating, but only because sophomore Tyler Nichols reeled off runs of 28 and 42 yards during the first half and finished with 16 carries for 118 yards. Even with that, the Yellow Jackets’ rushing game accounted for 179 yards, a solid effort but just 24 yards more than the astonishing 155 yards in penalties.
“It’s hard to execute when you keep shooting yourself in the foot,” Jones said of Starkville’s 15 penalties, including six for 75 yards over the final 8 minutes of the first half. “And we shot ourselves in the foot a lot. Thank God it’s the first game.”
Meanwhile, the Falcons were having first-game issues as well, not the least of which was inexperience. While Starkville returned just six starters, Columbus’ passing game was marked by dropped passes and miscommunication.
“We knew we had inexperience coming in at receivers and quarterback,” Falcons coach Joshua Pulphus said. “We left a lot of balls out there. We missed a few balls we should have caught, we had miscommunication issues, but we’ve just got to get it fixed and be ready to come back next week.”
Their other problem was the Starkville defense, which came up with several big plays in key situations. The Falcons converted just one of five fourth-down plays, and that was on an offsides penalty on the Yellow Jackets. Starkville recorded three interceptions and recovered a fumble on a backward pass.
Making matters worse for the visitors was that two of those turnovers came on drives immediately following Starkville touchdowns, removing any chance of answering. The first was a 2-yard burst by Nichols to cap 12-play, 73-yard drive spanning the first and second quarters that was highlighted by a 23-yard pass over the middle from Trey Petty to Jaylon York and a 28-yard run by Nichols that began the possession.
The second came more quickly, as Nichols’ 42-yard run set up a 4-yard keeper by Petty that gave the Yellow Jackets a 14-0 lead halfway through the second quarter.
Petty shared quarterback duties with senior Jaquez Harris, and while neither had a standout game, both showed flashes of the talent that makes Jones play both of them.
“I think they both did well,” the fifth-year coach said. “Trey adds another dimension; when stuff breaks down he has escability and playmaking ability. I thought Quez did well also, but at the end of the day you’ve got to correct some stuff up front to give both of them enough time to complete some passes downfield.”
Petty completed 3 of 10 passes for 52 yards while rushing for 33 yards, while Harris finished 5 of 9 for 24 yards, his total hurt by a 16-yard loss on a screen pass on Starkville’s second drive. But more importantly, their only turnover was a fourth-down interception that left the Falcons starting on their own 8-yard line.
But Columbus quarterback Omari Williams had a rougher night, connecting 11 times on 31 attempts for 69 yards along with the three picks. But Williams deserved a better fate; several of his on-target throws were dropped or simply bounced off of receivers’ chests.
Those problems helped keep the Falcons off of the scoreboard.
“Our offense did a good job moving the football, but we’ve got to make those plays,” Pulphus said. “That’s one thing we’ve been talking about, making those plays in practice and making those plays in games. That’s one thing we didn’t do. We didn’t finish drives.”
Three of those drives stood out. Late in the first quarter, the Falcons moved 50 yards, highlighted by a 16-yard third-down pass from Williams to Courtavien Clark. But two incompletions, a holding call and a run stuffed for no gain forced a punt.
Midway through the third quarter, following Lezerek Brown’s 23-yard run that gave the Yellow Jackets a 21-0 lead, the Falcons, aided by face mask and holding penalties on Starkville, motored from their own 20 to the Jackets’ 14. But on fourth down, Williams was sacked for a 6-yard loss by sophomore Jermar McCarter.
Then, when they were just trying to avoid a shutout, the Falcons put together a 13-play drive that stalled at the Starkville 37 when a Williams pass deflected off of Curtis Willis and into the hands of York for the final interception. It was left for Petty to take a knee to close out the shutout.
“Great job by the defense, real sloppy though,” Jones said. “We’ve got some pieces, but we’ve got to keep getting better, and I think we will get better. I’m looking forward to the future.”
“I’m not going to say the stage was too big, but we didn’t handle it the right way,” Pulphus said. “We’ve got a lot to build on, and I promise you — I promise you — next Friday against Southaven we’ll be better offensively, better defensively and better on special teams. I promise you that.”
Starkville 28, Columbus 0
Columbus (0-1) 0 0 0 0 — 0
Starkville (1-0) 0 14 7 7 — 28
Tyler Nichols 2 run (Josh Eaves kick), 8:26
Trey Petty 4 run (Josh Eaves kick), 5:54
Lezerek Brown 23 run (Josh Eaves kick) 5:08
Braylon Burnside 27 interception return (Josh Eaves kick) 5:15