With a guaranteed playoff berth and a first-round bye on the line Friday night, the Columbia Academy Cougars (2-6, 1-1) struggled to get out of their own way and lost 18-12 at Wayne Academy.
“It was a disappointing loss,” head coach Randy Butler said. “We had a chance to win the district championship, and I wanted it for this team, these seniors. They wanted it really bad, but Wayne just played a little bit better than us. We have to bounce back and play a very formidable explosive, physical football team this week, and if we’re sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves and still licking our wounds Friday night it’s going to be a tough situation.”
As it stands now going into the final week of the regular season the Cougars are in the playoffs as the No. 9 seed of the 12-team field, but the only way they are guaranteed to play in the postseason is to beat Oak Forest Academy (6-3) at home Friday night.
The four district winners are the only teams assured a spot in the playoffs with the other eight ranked by a power-point system. Columbia Academy’s strength of schedule currently boosts them into the field, and head coach Randy Butler said he believes even with a loss to Oak Forest the Cougars would still get in even though it’s not a given.
Oak Forest is one of the top teams in 6A and is riding a four-game winning streak that includes victories over PCS and Parklane Academy. Butler said the Yellowjackets run just about every formation imaginable and couple a potent rushing game with a bootleg passing attack that often hits for big plays.
“First of all they have really, really good players and are really well coached. They play hard, fast and physical. They have two running backs that are exceptional. They do a great job with their offensive line,” he said. “But they give you a bunch of different formations, and they shift all around and do those kinds of things. It makes you have to simplify defensively with your coverages.”
Butler added that when Oak Forest does line up in an unusual formation, the Cougars will just have to survive it and not allow a big play.
“I’ve learned that if you survive those things and don’t give up a big play, then they won’t come back to that. We have to do a good job of recognizing things and getting set up in the right spot,” he said.
The Cougars seemed to get off to a perfect start Friday night only for it to immediately come crashing down. Columbia Academy stuffed Wayne on three consecutive plays to force a punt on 4th-and-20, and Riles Stuart returned the punt back 86 yards for a touchdown. However, Cole Rowell, who was perhaps the best player on the field all night and had two tackles for loss to force the punt, was called for an illegal block in the back that Butler called a legit penalty and brought the return back.
On the very next play, Robert Johnson caught a quick pass and attempted to pitch the ball to Preston Sauls on a hook-and-ladder trick play. But Johnson got hit as he tried to pitch it, and Sauls was too close to him to catch it cleanly, allowing Wayne to jump on the loose ball.
The turnover didn’t come back to haunt the Cougars, though, as they forced another three-and-out and a punt. That punt was just the beginning of the defenses controlling the game as the two teams combined for five straight drives ending in punts.
The Jaguars were knocking on the door after starting a second-quarter drive at the CA 39, but Ras Pace, who was playing his first-ever game on defense for the Cougars thanks to a litany of injuries, made a great leaping interception in the end zone.
After three more punts, the Jaguars finally found some running room against the stingy CA defense, and Davion Woulard sprinted 76 yards for a touchdown that gave Wayne a 6-0 lead going into halftime.
The Cougars went three-and-out on the opening drive of the second half, which led to another long touchdown run for the Jaguars. Wayne running back Cross Kittrell found a seam off left tackle, accelerated through the open hole and raced 56 yards to pay dirt to put the Jaguars up 12-0 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Columbia Academy’s offense finally got out of neutral on the ensuing possession as the Cougars gained some traction by feeding Pace with a series of quarterback powers. The senior carried the ball nine times for 56 yards on the drive until the Cougars faced a 4th-and-9 from the Wayne 11. They then turned to Pace’s arm as he connected with Johnson on an out route for an 11-yard score that made 12-6 with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter.
The Cougars attempted an onside kick to try to steal a possession, but Wayne was ready for it. The Cougars defense rose to the occasion despite the short field and forced yet another punt that proved disastrous for the Cougars. Stuart went down with cramps on the return, forcing freshman Holdyn Sandifer into Stuart’s role in the backfield. On the second play of the drive, Sandifer fumbled a handoff that was recovered by Wayne and set the Jaguars up at the CA 16.
Within a few plays, the Jaguars were into the end zone again as quarterback Jacob Castle scored on a 6-yard sweep. The extra point was blocked, but the Jaguars had a two-possession, 18-6 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
A desperation fake punt on the Cougars’ ensuing drive proved to be the spark CA needed to mount a comeback. Trevor Courtney, who was punting for the injured Patrick Gill, connected with Kris Ginn for a 29-yard gain. Then on 3rd-and-goal from the Wayne 1, Pace connected with Johnson on a jump pass that cut the deficit to 18-12 with 3:39 left to play.
However, CA was unable to recover the onside kick or stop Wayne’s rushing attack as the Jaguars were able to run out the clock.
“At times we played as good as we have all year, especially on defense. In a game like that with two evenly matched teams there’s always going to be a handful of plays or penalties that makes the difference,” Butler said. “I told the kids after the game I was happy with how hard we played, but I had been telling them all week with two evenly matched teams it doesn’t matter who wants it more. It’s who plays the best, and they played a little bit better than us."
Pictured Above: Columbia Academy's Ras Pace throws a pass against Wayne Academy. | Photo by Joshua Campbell