Columbus spent all week in practice preaching the importance of turnovers leading up to Thursday. If the Explorers raced out to a quick lead, they could make Palmetto’s offense one dimensional and let their talented defensive line wreak havoc.
On the third play of the game, the Panthers ran a screen down the left sideline and Columbus’ defense held up Palmetto’s Mike Jackson for just long enough for Demetries Ford to run in and strip the ball loose. The cornerback took off in the other direction for a 70-yard touchdown.
Two plays later, it was Kalani Norris’ turn. Committed to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as a wide receiver, Norris jumped a short pass and raced into the end zone untouched for a 35-yard touchdown. By the time Columbus finally took the field on offense, it already held a 14-point lead and was well on its way to a 42-0 win at Tropical Park.
“A lot of talk going up to the game,” Explorers coach Chris Merritt said. “Our kids took the challenge and came out on the right note.”
It was just the start of the onslaught for Columbus. Running back Henry Parrish took a screen pass 50 yards to the end zone on the Explorers’ first offensive play and by the end of the quarter Columbus (12-0) stretched its lead to 28-0. The Explorers led 42-0 halftime, letting them empty the bench for a running clock in the second half in Miami.
The No. 1 seed in Class 8A-Region 4, Columbus will now host either Southridge or South Dade in the region championship game next week. The Spartans and Buccaneers play their region semifinal game Friday at Southridge Park.
The Explorers will face the winner coming off probably their most complete performance of the year. Columbus later added a special-teams touchdown when Rudy Puig blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Explorers touchdowns in all three phases. Columbus held the Panthers (10-2) to less than 50 yards of offense in the first half and sacked Palmetto’s quarterbacks four times.
“We just put on a show,” Ford said.
The Explorers made the most of their limited opportunities on offense, too. Columbus ran only 32 plays in the first half and still piled up 222 yards of total offense with three touchdowns. Parrish led the way with 11 carries for 63 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run, plus the 50-yard touchdown catch.
Columbus began its second drive back at its own 22-yard line and let Parrish go to work. He ripped off a 10-yard run on the second play, then a 17-yard run on the third. In 13 plays, the Explorers marched 78 yards, capping the drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brandon McDuffey to wide receiver Xzavier Henderson just before the end of the quarter.
Before Columbus got the ball back, the Explorers tacked on another touchdown when Puig blocked the Panthers’ punt and carried it into the end zone.
Puig blocked another punt later in the quarter to set up the final touchdown and let Columbus rest its starters for the second half. This time, the safety gave the Explorers the ball at Palmetto’s 9-yard line. On an ensuing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Parrish punched in his second touchdown to solidify a statement win in the region semifinal.
“We just came in on a mission,” said Norris, who also had an 18-yard catch. “We’re focused on one thing and that’s states.”