By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
The Highlands Bluebirds defense knew the Ashland Blazer Tomcats would try to pound them between the tackles.
The Tomcats finished with 260 yards on 52 carries and two touchdowns for an average of five a carry. But after going for 196 on 28 carries for an average of seven in the first half, Ashland managed just 64 yards on 24 carries for an average of about 2.7 a carry in the second half. Highlands pulled away from Ashland, 52-13 in the second round of the playoffs Friday.
“Defensively, we just played great,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands co-head coach. “They’ve got some excellent offensive linemen. Their coach (Leon Hart) does a great job. They have a great scheme, but we played them so well defensively when we were struggling offensively. That was big for us.”
Ashland came into the game with three running backs out with injuries including freshman Quentin Baker. The Tomcats ran out of the tight I-formation packages and some spread looks. Quarterback Aaron Elam and running backs Evan Yongue and Malik Massey had most of the carries.
But only Youngue gained anything significant. He finished with 168 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown for an average of 11.2 a touch. Elam and Massey ran for a combined 300 yards in the first-round win against Covington Holmes last week. The Bluebirds held Elam to 37 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown for an average of 2.6 a carry and Massey to 30 yards on 14 carries for an average of 2.1 a touch.
“We decided to play at their heels when they blocked down,” said Braden Hicks, Highlands junior defensive lineman. “If you play your gap and take on the trap, it will lead you to the ball.”
The Tomcats moved the ball on their first possession. Elam capped it off with a 10-yard score on nine plays with 5:57 left in the first quarter to put Ashland up 7-0. That was their longest drive until the final one to end the game.
Highlands senior defensive lineman Trevor Kraft came up with a huge momentum-swinger in the third quarter. He stuffed Massey on a dive for a 1-yard loss on 3rd-and-one with about 5:30 left in the quarter.
“We knew they were really going to take it to us,” Kraft said. “They were going to run at us as hard as they possibly could. Their emotions were up. But we knew we had to stop them. We had to run to them as hard as we could and keep our gaps. Once we stopped them, they started falling apart.”
Highlands did not have any players play both offensively and defensively. But Ashland did and that showed in the second half when the Tomcats wore down.
For the season, Highlands has 645 points and 91 touchdowns. Those equate to 53.75 points and just below 7.6 touchdowns a contest. The Bluebirds scored 849 points and 121 touchdowns last year.
Dominating District 8 competition:
Teams in Kentucky may have had problems beating Highlands period. The Bluebirds moved to 79-1 against Kentucky teams since the start of 2007 with the win.
But not only has Highlands not lost to Ashland since 1954, the Bluebirds are 29-5-1 against all of the current District 8 all-time with all five losses coming to the Tomcats. The Bluebirds beat Johnson Central in each of the previous four state championship runs. They are also 2-0 against Rowan County, Boyd County and Greenup County respectively.
With Johnson Central’s loss to Covington Catholic, the Golden Eagles and Bluebirds will not meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Bluebirds eliminated the Golden Eagles in 2008, 2009 and 2010 in the regional title game.
Rematch with the Colonels:
For the second straight year, Highlands and Covington Catholic will meet for the Region 4 championship. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels, 42-14 in last year’s regional title game in Fort Thomas after winning the regular-season contest, 42-37.
Highands also beat Covington Catholic twice in 2007. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels, 28-14 in the regular season that year and 40-0 in the second round of the playoffs.
In 2006, Covington Catholic did the same to Highlands. The Colonels won 29-27 in Fort Thomas in the regular season before beating the Bluebirds, 25-15 in the second round of the playoffs on their way to the state championship.
Friday’s game will mark the 60th meeting all-time between the Bluebirds and Colonels. Highlands leads the series, 42-17.
Regular-Season Opponents also advance in playoffs:
Aside from Covington Catholic, Highlands’ saw four other regular-season opponents advance to the third round of the playoffs.
In Class 4A, Region 3, Boyle County drove to Russell Springs and knocked off undefeated Russell County, 14-6. The Rebels moved to 8-4 with the win and face Lexington Catholic (10-2) for the regional championship for the fifth straight year. The Knights beat Knox Central, 35-6. Lexington Catholic edged Boyle County, 24-21 on Sept. 28 in the game Knight quarterback Kyle Bolin, a University of Louisville commit, tore his anterior cruciated ligament.
In Class 6A, Scott County rolled to 70-7 victory over Lexington Henry Clay in the second round of the playoffs. The Cardinals (11-1) meet Simon Kenton for the regional championship.
In Class 4A, Louisville Western (6-6) has picked things up since an 0-4 start. The Warriors knocked off Nelson County, 46-34 and will play host to Collins for the Region 2 championship.
In Class 3A, Mason County beat neighboring Fleming County, 40-21 to make the third round of the playoffs. The Royals face the 12-0 Bourbon County Colonels for the regional championship.
Warren East lone 4A unbeaten left:The Warren East Warriors stayed undefeated with a 42-9 win over Lone Oak in the second round of the playoffs Friday. The Raiders face 8-4 Owensboro for the Region 1 championship.