By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Many have tried it this season.
But only one football team successfully carried out the plan to victory against Class 4A’s top-ranked Highlands Bluebirds (10-1). Teams try to gain five yards at a time rushing the football between the tackles, milk the clock and keep the quick-strike Bluebird offense off the field.
Cincinnati Elder did it in Highlands’ lone loss of the season, 38-24 on Oct. 19. But the Panthers are the lone team that has had a big enough offensive line and a bruising running back to pull off the feat.
The Bluebirds expect their second-round playoff opponent in the Ashland Blazer Tomcats to try it Friday at 7:30 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium in Fort Thomas. The eighth-ranked Tomcats (9-2) line up in the I-formation pound it at people. Highlands last faced Blazer in the same round in Class 5A in 2008 at Fort Thomas and won 53-6.
“They’ll try to control the clock,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach. “They’ll snap the ball with two seconds left on the play clock. They’ll walk out of the huddle and try to slow the game down as much as they possibly can.”
Blazer comes into the game off a 41-14 win over Covington Holmes in the first round of the playoffs. The Tomcats lost to Johnson Central, 22-21 in overtime of the District 8 championship game on Oct. 19.
In the win over Holmes, quarterback Aaron Elam and tailback Malik Massey had big games running the ball. Massey rushed for 155 yards and three touchdowns and Elam had 145 yards rushing and 94 passing. Elam ran for two touchdowns and passed for another. The Tomcats have had injury problems at running back this year.
Boyd County tried to control the clock running some Wing-T and Stack-I formations in Highlands’ 56-14 first-round playoff victory Friday. But the Bluebirds contained it allowing just 165 yards on 42 carries for an average of about 3.9 yards a touch.
“We can’t let them get outside,” said Jacob Noe, Highlands sophomore linebacker. “We also need to get penetration on the defensive line. We have to focus on our roles and we should play well.”
Boyd County and Holmes are the common opponents of both squads. Highlands defeated Holmes, 57-28 on Oct. 12 and Blazer beat the arch-rival Lions, 56-16 on Sept. 28.
Highlands will counter with its 3-4 defense. The Bluebirds allow an average of just 275.9 yards and 19.8 points per game. That includes 189.6 yards a game rushing.
Senior linebacker Reid Schroeder leads Highlands with eight tackles for a loss and junior linebacker Thomas Wrobleski has a team-high six sacks. Senior defensive back Quentin Murray has four interceptions for the Bluebirds and sophomore Griffin Urlage has three, including one in each of the last two games. Ten different Highlands defenders have one fumble recovery a piece.
Offensively, the Highlands spread offense will go against a Blazer defense that has experience on the defensive line. The Tomcats run a mixture of 3-4, 4-3 and 4-4 defenses among other looks. But Highlands has countered defenses all year with solid line play.
“We’re a man-blocking team so we choose one man and we make sure he goes nowhere near the play,” said Kendall Kramer, Highlands junior offensive lineman. “When you drive him to the other side of the field, that feels absolutely amazing. We just have to play our hardest.”
The Bluebirds have a number of weapons offensively and Colin Seidl said he expects to play. Quarterback Donovan McCoy has completed 130-of-203 passes for 2,070 yards, 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. McCoy has also rushed for 603 yards on 86 carries and 12 touchdowns for an average of just more than seven a carry. Only teammate Zach Harris has more rushing yardage going for 736 on 89 carries and 13 touchdowns for an average of about 8.27 a carry.
Quarterbacks McCoy, Drew Houliston and Beau Hoge have completed passes to 16 different receivers for Highlands. Senior Luke Turner leads the way with 28 receptions for 566 yards and seven touchdowns for an average of 20.2 a catch.
The Bluebirds have an advantage in the depth department. The Tomcats have players that play both offensively and defensively while the Bluebirds have no players going both directions. The Bluebirds often wear down opponents that way.
The Bluebirds may have to face several ranked opponents if they want to win their state-record sixth consecutive state championship. But Highlands has been through that before. That is not pressure like what police officers and doctors face on a daily basis.
“There’s a level they’ve stepped up to,” Mueller said. “Last week was our most important game of the year. Now this week is more important than that. People talk about it being a pressurized situation. It’s not a life or death situation. It’s very important to us. We’re going to play the game the hardest we can.”
The Bluebirds have history on their side in this series. Highlands is 18-5-1 all-time against Blazer. They’ve not lost to the Tomcats since about the time of Mueller’s birth in 1954.