The Columbia Eagles have achieved rare balance on offense, especially for a mid-level high school football team. They average 43.3 points per game, racking up yards in near equal proportions via air or ground.
Led by senior quarterback Greg Long — the BND Player of the Week following his efficient performance over previously unbeaten Central — the Eagles have 1,561 total passing yards.
The final regular season Player of the Week, Columbia running back Colton Byrd, paces an Eagles’ ground attack that has amassed 1,828 yards.
“I know our defensive coordinator will tell you the teams that are most balanced on offense are the toughest to defend,” said Columbia head coach Scott Horner. “From his perspective, you think about how to control the other team and who you have to concentrate on stopping.
“In our offense, having a back like Colton Byrd allows us to be balanced and stay balanced, which puts a a lot of pressure on opposing defenses.”
Nobody would know the value of a good running back better than Scott Germain, Columbia’s defensive coordinator — he holds the Eagles’ single-season rushing record of 1,765 yards.
Byrd punctuated a perfect 9-0 regular season with consecutive 200-yard games, first blitzing Red Bud with 249 yards and three touchdowns in week 8, then rolling for 245 yards and five scores in a workman like 28 carries in a win over Jerseyville Friday.
Those weren’t the first multi-touchdown games Byrd has had this season — he found the end zone six times in the first half during a week 5 win over Caryle.
On the season, Byrd has 1,350 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in 159 carries. How far the Eagles can advance in the playoffs — they will host 5-4 Greenville in the first round Saturday at 1 p.m. — may determine how long Germain’s record will stand.
He is definitely one of the top five guys we've had here. That doesn't come from looking at the numbers. It comes from evaluating everything he can do.
Scott Horner, Columbia head football coach
Byrd needs 415 yards to set the new standard.
“I just want to help my team,” said the unassuming junior. “We’re really motivated to get past that second week of the playoffs.”
Columbia, ranked No. 5 in the final Associated Press state-wide 4A football poll, has advanced to the IHSA playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and 12th time in Horner’s 16 years as head coach. But the Eagles haven’t advanced beyond the second round since their quarterfinal appearance in 2008, despite finishing the regular season undefeated three times over that time.
Last year, they were upset in the second round by Mater Dei.
“Getting to the quarterfinals has been an unspoken goal,” Byrd said. “We don’t talk about it because we try to focus on just playing week to week and on improving our game.”
It’s hard to imagine the Eagles getting much better at racking up yards or scoring points, but Byrd has done his part to make himself better.
At just 150 pounds, he was Columbia’s second-leading tackler a year ago. A summer of hard work in the weight room brought him back for his junior season with 30 more pounds on his 5-foot, 8-inch frame.
The added mass and strength has given Byrd’s game added dimension, Horner says.
“We’ve got balance in our offense because of the great balance he has as well,” Horner said. “What separates him from many others is his great vision and his great feet. He’s not a 4.4 guy who will run away from you, but he’s so quick. He can make people miss, and not just in the open field.
“He is definitely one of the top five guys we’ve had here. That doesn’t come from looking at the numbers. It comes from evaluating everything he can do. He can block, he can catch passes, you name it.”
Byrd says he’s more than happy to play his part in a total team effort that includes Long, who maintains a perfect 157.34 passer rating, even after nine full weeks, and Jordan Holmes, whose 48 receptions for 778 yards are both tops in the metro-east.
Getting to the quarterfinals has been an unspoken goal. We don't talk about it because we try to focus on just playing week to week and on improving our game.
Colton Byrd, Columbia junior running back
“I feel like I can really help our passing game because the yards I get help set up the play-action,” Byrd said. “We can fake the run, bring the other team in and find our guys open down field. Our linemen do a great job of selling that, too, because they have to hold up and not get down field in their blocking.”
That line includes Mitch Huebner and Blake Wagner on the left side, Cole Napier and Owen Suedkamp on the right, and Bryant Goacher at center.
Byrd is one of nine Columbia players who still gets action on both sides of the line of scrimmage. In fact his 47 tackles and three sacks from the linebacker position each rank second on his team.
“We have to play guys without a break like that,” Horner said. “It makes the job Colton has done all the more impressive because he does it with little rest. It’s been a break-out year for him.”