For the second consecutive game, Columbus needed its defense to make big plays down the stretch.
The Explorers were once again up to the challenge.
Columbus’ defense forced a turnover and stopped Northwestern twice on downs, including a last stand in the closing seconds to preserve a 13-6 victory Friday night at Traz Powell Stadium.
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“This is still Northwestern and there’s a lot of tradition there and coach [Max Edwards] is doing a great job,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “Any time you can come in here given their history and beat them, it’s a feather in our cap.”
Northwestern sophomore quarterback Chatarius Atwell converted a 3rd and 16 by running 21 yards to the Columbus 9-yard line with 37.2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
After Northwestern running back Corey Lane was stopped for no gain, Columbus’ secondary broke up two passes that could have resulted in touchdowns. On fourth and goal, Atwell rolled to his left and tried to run it into the end zone, but was forced out of bounds at the 3-yard line, turning the ball over on downs with 5.2 seconds left.
Columbus (2-0), which beat Jackson last week, faced one of the county’s more athletic quarterbacks for the second week in a row. Last week, Jackson quarterback Desmond Phillips passed for 196 yards and ran for 112. Atwell ran for 65 and passed for 36 yards, but continually evaded the rush and made plays.
“Those guys are exposing a weakness in our defense and we have to get better at containing them between the tackles,” Merritt said.
Atwell led Northwestern on what would have been the winning drive that started at its own 14-yard line with less than four minutes left.
It wasn’t the Bulls’ only opportunity, however.
Northwestern senior defensive back Steve Henderson intercepted Columbus quarterback Alex Ros, setting the Bulls (1-1) up at the Explorers 45-yard line. The drive eventually stalled and Northwestern turned the ball over on downs.
On the previous drive Atwell led the Bulls near the red zone. But on a scramble, the ball slipped out of Atwell’s hands and senior defensive end Anthony Quallo recovered for Columbus.
“We shouldn’t have put the defense in that position,” Merritt said. “You can’t throw interceptions at that point in the game. If we get one more first down on that last drive it doesn’t even come down to that.”
Columbus running back C.J. Henderson broke a 6-6 tie with a 26-yard touchdown run to give the Explorers (2-0) the lead with 2:35 left in the third quarter.
Senior kicker Corey Pastor hit field goals from 37 and 40 yards out in the first half and Columbus led 6-0 with 10.9 seconds left in the second quarter.
That edge was short-lived as Northwestern’s Christopher Othelot returned the ensuing kickoff 99 yards to tie the game at 6 at halftime.
“We were just praying for the defense to come through,” said Ros, who went 15 for 21 for 169 yards passing. “This pushes us and is a confidence boost going forward.”