In all the pregame hype surrounding the Cahokia Conference battle of state-ranked unbeatens between Columbia and Central, few expected anything but a close game.
The Columbia Eagles decided to rewrite that script, capitalizing on four turnovers Friday and running their conference win streak to 29 games with an impressive 33-6 victory over previously unbeaten Central.
“We just wanted it more, to be honest with you,” said Columbia senior quarterback Greg Long, who ran for 98 yards and a touchdown, threw for 223 yards and two TDs and also had an interception on defense. “We came out and smashed them right in the mouth. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Columbia (7-0 overall, 5-0 in league play) held Central’s strong running game in check most of the night and were able to move the ball offensively when necessary.
Eagles junior receiver Jordan Holmes caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown and also returned an interception 35 yards for another score.
The Eagles, ranked fifth in the state in Class 4A, used one of those turnovers to help them score two TDs in a 19-second span late in the third quarter. Following a 14-yard TD pass to Holmes, Central running back Collin Thomas was stripped of the ball by Columbia’s Colton Byrd, who caught a 24-yard TD pass from Long on the next play.
Columbia’s lead grew to 27-6 and Long’s 10-yard TD run with 8:10 remaining closed out the scoring.
“They did exactly what they had to do to beat us,” said Central coach Brian Short,whose 6-1 team dropped to 4-1 in the league and is eighth in the 3A state rankings. “They stopped our run and made us throw, and that’s not our strong suit. We threw two picks and fumbled twice.
“You can’t beat Columbia if you’re going to lose the turnover margin 4-0. That just isn’t going to work.”
Columbia led 13-0 at halftime, but Central grounded out an 80-yard drive capped by a 16-yard TD run by quarterback Hunter Toeben. That cut the Eagles’ lead to 13-6 and Central seemed to have regained traction before things quickly got out of hand.
Even Columbia coach Scott Horner wondered if Central was too big and physical for the smaller Eagles. as it turned out, the Columbia defense was a huge part of the victory.
“The good news is the game’s not won on paper,” Horner said. “When you looked at just the matchup in general, and I told them that in the huddle, I was concerned that they were going to push us around a little bit.
“They’re a big, aggressive group and I was concerned our guys up front weren’t going to be able to handle them. Credit to our kids, I couldn’t be any more proud. They played their tails off. “
Byrd finished with 63 yards on 16 carries.
“The bottom line is their guys just stuck it to us tonight and the better team won,” said Short, whose team ran the ball 41 times for 173 yards. The rushing total and scoring only one TD were well below their season averages, especially the more than 45 points per game.
Long booted a 30-yarder early in the second quarter to give the Eagles a 3-0 lead.
Long and Holmes hooked up on a 55-yard pass play that set up a 28-yard field goal by Long that pushed Columbia’s lead to 6-0.
A diving interception by Long, who seemingly came out of nowhere, robbed Central receiver Bailey Stewart of a potential touchdown catch late in the first half. Stewart was well behind a defender, but Long flew in from the side to make the pick.
“All throughout the week of practice we just believed in ourselves,” Holmes said. “We knew they were going to be a great team and a big team, so we had to bring the power. We executed on just about everything tonight and it made the outcome in our favor.
“It was awesome.”