By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
A lot of the nation now knows why this football team is the deeply talented Highlands Bluebirds.
The Bluebirds took some big punches early on against the feisty University Christian Fighting Christians. But the Bluebirds once again responded with a huge counterpunch scoring 47 straight points to beat the Jacksonville (Fla.) visitors, 47-17 Saturday afternoon in the season-opener for both teams on ESPNU.
“We always say, ‘If we’re down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, that’s our game,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Co-Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “We’re going to win that game because we’re going to battle until the end. It started off really slow for us but we didn’t miss a beat.”
Both teams entered the game fresh off state championships. The Bluebirds have won six in a row and 22 overall in improving to 88-3 since the start of 2007 and the Fighting Christians won the Florida 2A (second-smallest of eight classes) title last year and seventh overall.
The Fighting Christians had 21 new faces on the roster. But unlike Highlands, they are not a two-platoon team.
“We knew they were eventually going to wear down,” said Ryan Greene, Highlands senior wide receiver. “You could see it in the start of the second quarter.”
UC Head Coach David Penland said he knew depth would be an issue for his team. But he was mostly disappointed in the team’s effort, especially after the Bluebirds pulled away in the third quarter.
“There’s this thing inside your chest that pumps – your heart,” Penland said. “We had some guys that laid down. We’ll learn from this and get better from this. That’s a great football team. We’re a good football team. We just have to get better.”
The start of the game seemed similar to the season-opener last year. Boyle County threw its best jabs at the Bluebirds leading 24-15 at halftime before Highlands came alive and won 52-31. Highlands recovered sooner in this game grabbing a 13-10 halftime despite having the ball just six minutes, 15 seconds of the first half and garnering just 29 yards of total offense with 5:49 left in the half.
Highlands outgained UC, 518-311 in total offense. Senior quarterback Drew Houliston lead the way completing 21-of-30 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns. Tailback Zach Harris had 115 yards on 12 carries for an average of about 9.6 a carry and three touchdowns for the Bluebirds.
Highlands once again distributed the ball well. Greene and Jensen Feggins led Highlands with five catches each. Green had 73 yards receiving and two touchdowns and Feggins had 65 yards. Brandon Hergott followed with four catches for 96 yards and with Justin Weyer hauling in a 61-yard reception and Evan Allen scoring on a 39-yard catch.
Houliston overcame an interception and lost fumble to lead the Bluebirds to victory. Those turnovers led to 10 points as Preston Clark hit a field goal for UC with three minutes left and Stone Lakey scored on a 2-yard touchdown run with 11:55 left in the second.
But the Bluebirds erased the 10-point advantage in the final 5:01 of the half. Harris scored on a 22-yard touchdown run and Greene hauled in an 11-yard touchdown with 44.5 seconds left after Highland had two scores negated by penalties.
“(Houliston) threw an interception and fumbled and didn’t bat an eye,” Mueller said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a guy that has that poise. He’s so tremendous to coach.”
The Highlands offensive line continued to protect Houliston and the skill players well in the second half. The Bluebirds pulled away scoring four touchdowns on all four possessions of the third quarter. Harris had runs of two and 37 yards before Weyer did a d double move and scored his touchdown and Greene scored his second touchdown on a 24-yard reception.
The Bluebirds finished the scoring run with 7:06 left in the fourth quarter. Allen had his 39-yard touchdown score at that point.
“We really prepare all year to win late in games,” said Kendall Kramer, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “The first quarter saw two fresh teams. But we both condition really hard to be able to stick it out and play as well in the fourth quarter as we do in the first quarter. As soon as the second quarter came, we kicked it into gear and scored two touchdowns before (halftime). We were ready to go for the second half.”
The Highlands defense held its own the entire game against the UC Wing-T attack. The Fighting Christians ran a lot of traditional and spread Wing-T sets. Penland played at Georgetown College with former Bluebird T.J. Kramer.
“They lined up the way we thought they were going to line up,” Penland said. “They had one set that was different, but we adjusted well to it. If we had a couple more players, we’d have been alright. We had some opportunities in the beginning. Not being able to capitalize on them hurt us.”
The Fighting Christians outgained the Bluebirds, 244-145 in total offense. Tamarius Bowe led the way with 115 yards on 14 carries and Hussein Howe had 91 yards on 17 carries. The three UC quarterbacks combined to complete just 4-of-12 passes for 67 yards.
“There were already guys hurt,” said Kyle Martin, junior defensive back. “We switched the outside linebackers hitting the corner. We (first-team defense) didn’t let them score after the first quarter.”
UC took the first 6:40 of the game off the clock converting several first downs. That included a 3rd-and-20 conversion. But after the first quarter, the Fighting Christians did not score again until Billy Cobb completed a 57-yard touchdown to Ke’shan Pennamon with 4:39 left in the game.
Highlands faced a couple Wing-T teams last year. Scott County ran the traditional set and Boyd County ran the double-slot version. Scott County had some backs with similar speed to Bowe and Howe. But when Highlands garnered a big lead, the Cardinals had to leave their comfort zone and pass the ball like the Fighting Christians did. That was not the strength of either team in those games.
“We did what we were supposed to do,” said Brady Murray, Highlands junior linebacker. “That was the key factor in the game. It’s a matter of reading your keys and doing your job. We were concerned about the buck sweep and pitch.”
Highlands returns to action Friday against Campbell County (1-0). Game time is 7 p.m.