4A Playoffs: Top-ranked Columbia rolls past South Pike 35-7, setting up showdown with Bay High

COLUMBIA – The top-ranked team in Class 4A sure looked the part in the opening round of the playoffs.

Columbia took care of business in a big way Friday night, rolling over South Pike 35-7 in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs at Walter Payton Field. The Wildcats (10-1 overall) advanced to a second-round clash at home against Bay High. The Eagles finished 3-7.

“We were down a couple of guys tonight, our No. 1 and No. 2 running backs, so we challenged our defense to step up, and I thought they did,” said Columbia coach Chip Bilderback. “Offensively, I can’t say enough about those guys.

“Carter Smith did an excellent job running our offense and our offensive line did a great job creating holes. I’m really proud of our offense; we’re starting to click and gel.”

Columbia made short work of South Pike in this one, scoring touchdowns on its first two possessions and rolling out to a 35-0 halftime lead.

“We talked about it before we came out,” said junior wide receiver D.J. Cloyd, who led the Wildcats with 63 yards and a touchdown on four catches. “We knew we had to come out hard, because it’s the playoffs and you can’t take anything for granted.

“The coaches showed us everything on film, how to break up the defense and what routes we should run, and how to run it. I thought we did a good job of executing everything.”

Even with two starting running backs missing due to injuries, the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat offensively, doing pretty much whatever they wanted in the first half.

“I just feel like everything was opening up for us,” said junior quarterback Carter Smith, who completed 12 of 16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, all in the first half. “We didn’t think they could stay with our receivers, simple as that.”

Columbia took the opening kickoff of the game and needed less than two minutes to score. Junior Miguel Cook ran straight up the middle for a 45-yard touchdown run on the fourth play of the game.

After a quick three-and-out, the Wildcats were back in business, driving 44 yards on eight plays, scoring on a 13-yard pass from Smith to senior Joshua Brown. Sophomore Amerion Fortenberry ran for the PAT and a 14-0 lead.

“Carter Smith has all the intangibles you want in a quarterback,” Bilderback said. “He’s a great leader and he makes everyone around him better. He’s gotten better and better as the season has gone along.”

Early in the second quarter, the Eagles had a nice drive going, but on a fourth-and-three pass play from the Columbia 30-yard-line, Derrick McNeil lost a fumble after an 11-yard gain.

Columbia took the turnover and marched 81 yards on 13 plays, with senior Kentrell Jackson scoring from a yard out to make it 21-0 midway through the period.

The Wildcats then broke South Pike’s will with back-to-back scoring drives in the final two minutes of the half.

Starting at the Eagle 46 after a punt, Fortenberry swept around left end and motored past the pursuit for a touchdown.

After a three-and-out, Columbia got the ball back at their own 30 with 42 seconds left in the period. 

Smith expertly worked the two-minute drill with passes of 22 yards to Cloyd, 15 yards to Jackson, then consecutive passes to Cloyd for 9 and 11 yards, the latter coming as time ran out in the half.

“That was amazing,” Smith said. “We managed the clock well, got out of bounds when we needed to, I made the right reads and hit the receivers. It worked out for us. I thought we made a statement with this win.”

That completed a half of utter dominance for Columbia. The Wildcats had 15 first downs and 329 yards of offense, and they held South Pike to a net of just 9 yards and one first down.

“Our whole goal was to not let them score, and not give them any positive yardages,” said senior defensive tackle Jeheim Oatis. “We wanted to dominate the game.”

Bilderback opted to start his second team in the second half to get his younger players some playoff experience.

“We were able to play our whole team in the second half,” Bilderback said. “That’s important to get our guys some experience in the playoffs.

“This senior group has played – I believe this was Game 50 for them. They’ve basically played five seasons over four years, so they have a lot of playoff experience. They understand and have that mindset to go 1-0 every week.”

The Eagles ate up most of the fourth quarter on a 14-play, 70-yard drive, using over eight minutes for their only score, on a 1-yard run by McNeil with 2:11 to play in the game.

Cook finished with 108 yards on nine carries for the Wildcats and Fortenberry added 67 yards on just four rushes, picking up the slack for injured starters Omar Johnson and Jonathan Wiltz. The Wildcats hope to have Johnson and Wiltz back next week.

“They’re all about the team,” said Bilderback of his stable of backs. “As long as the Wildcats win, they’re happy with the workload.”

Senior Eric Rodgers led South Pike with 91 yards on 18 carries, most of that total coming on the Eagles’ scoring drive.

Stan Caldwell

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