This was supposed to be Columbus’ year.
Their chance to make history.
Their chance to finally break through.
But even after a ferocious rally by the Columbus Explorers on Saturday night, they came up just short once again. This time, it was a 37-35 loss to Jacksonville Mandarin in the Class 8A state championship game at Camping World Stadium.
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The Explorers (14-1) certainly had their chances. Quarterback Brandon McDuffey had the game of his career, throwing for 293 yards and five touchdowns — three to junior Xzavier Henderson and two to senior Kalani Norris.
Two of them came in the final 9:23 of the game, with Henderson’s 9-yard catch in the right corner of the end zone putting Columbus within two points with 1:17 left to play.
But the two-point conversion attempt, a handoff to star running back Henry Parrish, was no good.
Mandarin (11-4), which won its first-ever state football title, ran out the clock after recovering the ensuing onside kick.
“My gut told me that this was going to be a shootout tonight,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “We had our opportunities and missed them. I tell these kids all the time that games like this can come down to four or five plays and it’s what it came down to and we didn’t make them.”
The central problem: Columbus’ defense had no answer for Mandarin quarterback Carson Beck until it was too late. Beck, a junior already committed to Alabama, threw for 329 yards and five touchdowns. An FHSAA state title game record four of which went to receiver DeMario Douglas, who finished with nine catches and 141 yards.
“He’s a very good quarterback,” Merritt said. “We knew he was going to be very accurate. They have a talented group of skill kids. We just didn’t make enough plays and they did tonight.”
Three of Beck’s touchdowns came in the first half to give the Mustangs a 24-14 lead at the break.
The defense held its own in the second half, limiting Mandarin to just 13 points in the final 24 minutes, but a few miscues were just enough to halt the comeback.
After Nicholas Marza missed a 28-yard field goal late in the third quarter, nickel corner Demetrius Ford jumped in front of a Beck pass and nearly had a pick-six but dropped the ball. Mandarin proceeded to go 80 yards down the field in eight plays, capped by Beck’s final touchdown of the night — a 29-yard shot to Douglas to go up 37-21 with 10:48 left on the clock.
Columbus answered with a four-play, 49-yard drive capped with a 32-yard touchdown from McDuffey to Norris. The two-point conversion made it 37-29 with 9:23 left to play.
Then came the wild finish.
Columbus’ defense got a much-needed stop and forced a punt. McDuffey threw an interception two plays later only for Mandarin to give it right back to Columbus when Demetries Ford forced a fumble and Maximul Villar recovered at the Columbus 41 with 4:14 left on the clock.
Parrish took over from there, rushing for 41 yards on five carries with a 9-yard pass from McDuffey to Gary Cooper mixed in before McDuffey found Henderson in the end zone to set up that potential game-winning two-point conversion that fell short.
“We’ve just got to hold our heads up high,” McDuffey said.
It was a somber end to an overall successful season. The Explorers, playing emotional football all season following the death of teammate Ari Arteaga in a single-car crash before the season started, cruised through their schedule. Columbus had just one loss on the field during the season heading into Saturday, a 35-0 defeat to Carol City that the Chiefs ultimately had to forfeit.
The Explorers swept through their district and then rolled through the first four games of the playoffs before ending one win shy of the ultimate goal.
“One of the best seasons in school history,” said senior offensive lineman Luis Cristobal, a Georgia State commit. “I’m really proud of these guys.”