Miami-Dade High Schools

Columbus topples Booker T. Washington, sets up pivotal district game

Columbus Explorers Darren Davis Jr. (13) plays against the Booker T. Washington Tornadoes on Friday, October 23, 2015 at Tropical Park Stadium in Miami.
Columbus Explorers Darren Davis Jr. (13) plays against the Booker T. Washington Tornadoes on Friday, October 23, 2015 at Tropical Park Stadium in Miami. For the Miami Herald

Although undefeated so far this season, Columbus needed to see whether its offense had truly started clicking against a top-tier opponent.

It did Friday night.

The Explorers amassed 475 total yards, led by a punishing ground game that totaled 283 yards, as they routed three-time reigning Class 4A state champion Booker T. Washington 40-13 at Tropical Park Stadium.

“We went back to old school Columbus football [Friday night] and we ran the ball,” Columbus coach Chris Merritt said. “I think for the first time this season we were truly able to grind it out and really hammer a team by running the ball down field.”

Columbus routs visiting Booker T. Washington 40-13 at Tropical Park on Oct. 23, 2015.

Led by C.J. Henderson’s 117 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, the Explorers built a lead that grew to 33 points by the end of the third quarter and beat Booker T. Washington (4-5) for the first time ever in a regular-season game.

Columbus (9-0) also showed efficiency through the air as senior quarterback Alex Ros threw for 173 yards and a touchdown on 13-of-17 passing, and ran for another score.

“This week was important for us because we’ve had trouble getting our offense clicking,” Ros said. “We needed more leadership and we’re getting that now. [On Friday night], we found out what we were made of and came out with a huge win.”

Coral Gables’ victory over Miami Beach on Friday clinched playoff berths for the Cavaliers and Columbus, and set up a district-championship scenario for next week’s meeting between the longtime rivals.

The two teams meet next Friday at Tropical Park in a battle of unbeatens at 7:30 p.m.

Gables (7-0) and Columbus have followed this type of regular-season game with a second-round playoff rematch each of the past three seasons, and are favorites to make it happen for the fourth consecutive time this year.

“We’ve played on our schedule about four teams with very proud communities and each of them let us know who they are even before kickoff,” Merritt said. “Our kids are well aware of who we are facing next week. They’re not going to hear anything different than what they’ve already heard a few times this year.”

Booker T., which finishes the regular season next week with a game against Edison, is playoff-bound, but once again could not secure what would have been back-to-back wins for the first time this season.

The Tornadoes rested freshman quarterback Daniel Richardson and started senior Eric Walker, who passed for 128 yards and a touchdown on 11 of 15 attempts. Booker T. running back Craig Nelson broke loose for a 56-yard touchdown run on the Tornadoes’ first drive — their longest run from scrimmage so far this season — to tie the score at 7.

Columbus had taken the early lead on a Henderson touchdown run after recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff.

But Nelson’s score was all Columbus’ defense yielded over the next three quarters as the Explorers scored 33 unanswered points. Junior Yael Gomez finished with 77 yards and a touchdown, and freshman Darren Davis Jr. ran for 52 yards and a touchdown.

Ros and Merritt each credited the improvement of the team’s offensive line as a catalyst for the team’s balanced offensive success.

“We’re starting to eliminate those little mistakes that would keep us from scoring 40 points in games,” Merritt said. “We have a couple of new pieces on the line that continue to get better and better and this was a great opportunity for them.”

Andre C. Fernandez: 305-376-4997, @AndreMHsports