Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It is a case of the seeds of confidence against the seeds of doubt.
The top-ranked, undefeated Highlands Bluebirds football team comes into another Class 4A, District 7 contest heavily favored against the struggling Pendleton County Wildcats (1-6 overall, 0-2 district) Friday. Highlands (6-0, 2-0) smashed the Wildcats, 79-0 in Falmouth last year and a similar score could occur this year based on the way Highlands tends to take care of business against either solid, average or struggling opponents.
The Bluebirds enter the contest fresh off a 69-10 domination of Harrison County in district action last week. Highlands used a hurry-up offense and scored on the first play of the possession three times in the first quarter in the victory. The Bluebirds led 21-3 after the first quarter and 42-10 at halftime. They hope to jump out to another big lead in this game by just being themselves.
“The whole focus this week is to play good football – to block well, to get off blocks and tackle well, to throw (the football) and catch it well, to kick and field kicks well,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach. “So it’s really a matter of us playing to the standards that we want to play more than the standards to beat the other team.”
Pendleton County has been outscored a combined 134-7 in its two district games against Covington Holmes (64-7) and Covington Catholic (70-0). The Colonels outgained the Wildcats, 433-63 in total offense. CovCath scored on its first seven possessions before the starters came out of the game. Opponents have outscored Pendleton County, 51-19.3 on average.
The Wildcats like to run a Spread offense with four wide receivers and a 4-3 defense. They have just 29 players on the roster listed on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association web site compared to 91 for Highlands. They are led by senior wide receiver/defensive back Jacob Kells.
Pendleton County started its program in 2002 and is on its third head coach since then in third-year Newport Central Catholic graduate Terry Brown. The Wildcats are 6-21 in Brown’s tenure. They’ve been to the playoffs three times in school history losing in the 4A first round in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Pendleton County’s only winning seasons in school history came in 2009 (7-4) and 2005 (6-4).
On the other hand, Highlands has outscored the opposition, 328-125 this year for an average of 54.7-20.8. The Bluebirds own a 26-game winning streak and have won 43 in a row at home. They are 79-2 since the start of 2007.
Big plays have been there on offense all season for the Bluebirds. They average 498.8 yards and 7.8 touchdowns per contest offensively in their spread attack thanks to solid offensive line play led by players like Mitch Dee and Richie Whitford.
Highlands has scored 47 touchdowns, ran for 1,482 yards and passed for 1,511. Quarterback Donovan McCoy leads the way rushing for 424 yards on 64 attempts and 10 touchdowns for an average of 6.6 per carry. McCoy has also thrown for 1,264 yards completing 79-of-125 attempts for about 63 percent with 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. The Bluebirds have converted 58 percent (33-of-57) on third-down and 50 percent (4-of-8) on fourth.
Five different Bluebirds have run for more than 200 yards this year. After McCoy, Zach Harris has 392 yards on 66 carries and eight touchdowns for an average of 5.9 a carry.
Quarterbacks McCoy, Drew Houliston and Beau Hoge have completed passes to 14 different receivers for Highlands. Luke Turner leads the way with 13 catches for 220 yards two touchdowns and Nick True has 10 for 150 yards. True, Jac Collinsworth, Jensen Feggins and Brandon Hergott have three touchdown receptions a piece. The receivers also do a good job blocking downfield.
“The main thing the receivers do during practice is block more than most receivers,” said Jaylen Hayes, Highlands junior running back. “They practice blocking downfield and engaging their defenders.”
A huge stat that stands out for the Bluebirds is their Red Zone (area between the opponents’20-yard line and goal line) offense. Highlands has scored on 33-of-34 trips there for 97 percent including 31 touchdowns for 91 percent. The only trip Highlands did not score in the Red Zone is the final possession against Covington Catholic when it elected to take a knee to run out the clock after driving to the Colonel 3.
The Highlands’ defense may be allowing 271.2 yards and opponents have scored 16 touchdowns. But Highlands has allowed just four touchdowns and an average of just 11.3 points per contest in the last three games. The Bluebirds have held strong on third and fourth down allowing just 28 percent (19-of-68) conversion on third-down and 33 percent (6-of-18) on fourth.
“It has gotten a lot more intense (defensively) because we’re trying to get better each practice,” said Jackson Bardo, Highlands junior defensive back. “We work on our form and tackling in each practice.”
The Bluebirds also own a plus-6 in the turnover department picking off eight passes and recovering nine fumbles while throwing six interceptions and losing five fumbles. Blake Schutte and Quentin Murray lead Highlands with two interceptions a piece and nine different Bluebirds have one fumble recovery.
Highlands has 12 sacks. Thomas Wrobleski leads the way with five sacks and Joe Paolucci has 3.5. Reid Schroder leads Highlands with three tackles for a loss.
“I think defensively, we’ve actually played great all year,” Mueller said. “We score in a hurry and the other team has the ball. Some defenses have to defend 34-40 snaps (a game). Our defense has to defend 65-70 snaps. We’re getting a couple guys healthy.”
One area of improvement for Highlands is on kickoff returns. Teams have returned kickoffs 901 yards on 48 attempts for an average of 18.7 a return and four touchdowns.
Game time is 7 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.