By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
RADCLIFF – The Highlands Bluebirds football team learned why it has to prove itself each and every game Saturday.
The undefeated 4-0 Bluebirds have not been challenged much during their 91-3 run since the start of 2007, especially in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. But the John Hardin Bulldogs (2-2) made them earn a 33-26 non-district victory on their home turf forcing the starters to play the entire game.
“(John Hardin) played well. You have to give them some credit,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “If we don’t turn the ball over, I think we have a better outcome. It’s a John Hardin team that had won 77 games in six years and we’d won 87 so it was a good game between two teams used to winning.”
Ryle, Covington Catholic and in the playoffs, Lexington Bryan Station in 2008 and Johnson Central in 2010 were among the few Kentucky teams that have challenged the Bluebirds during that time. Ryle handed the Bluebirds their lone loss to a team from Kentucky, 28-26 on Oct. 28, 2010 since the start of 2007.
Highlands senior quarterback Drew Houliston and senior running back Zach Harris once again led the Bluebirds to victory. Houliston completed 20-of-29 passes for 281 yards and four touchdowns. Harris rushed for 64 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown and caught five passes for 59 yards and a score.
“It’s like coaching a (National Football League) quarterback,” Mueller said. “He just reads things so well. (Houliston) can come over and tell me what’s there. It’s so much fun coaching him. Drew plays so well one game after another.”
Harris also made sure John Hardin did not receive a chance to tie the game. He pounced on an onside kick with about 45 minutes left. That let Highlands go into victory formation and run out the clock.
Nine different receivers caught passes for the Bluebirds. Beau Hoge, Jensen Feggins and Brandon Hergott followed Harris with three each for 63, 34 and 29 yards each and Alex Veneman had two catches for 53 yards. Hergott scored two touchdowns and Feggins added the other.
The receivers did a good job finding holes to complete third-and-long situations. Highlands converted 6-of-9 on third-down and 2-of-3 on fourth down. John Hardin coverted 9-of-16 on third and 1-of-4 on fourth.
“Coach Mueller does a great job with the play calls on third-and-long situations,” Hoge said. “He gets us in good position to make those kind of plays. Once we get the ball, it’s easy.”
The Bluebirds did reach the Red Zone inside the John Hardin 20 on all seven possessions. The reason they did not score the other two times is they lost two fumbles. John Hardin also recovered an oneside kick near the end of the first quarter.
The Highlands offensive line did another fantastic job limiting John Hardin to just one quarterback sack. The Bluebirds contained Bulldog senior 6-foot-6-inch, 330-pound defensive lineman Matt Elam and even got him to jump offside a couple times. Elam has offers from several NCAA Division I schools such as Ohio State, Alabama and Kentucky.
“We didn’t game plan for (Elam) any differently,” said Tyler Schweitzer, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “I made sure I got low and moved my feet just like I would for anyone like Campbell County or (Covington Catholic). We didn’t care who he was. We’re just trying to win the game and win state.”
John Hardin had 14 penalties for 116 yards compared to nine for 67 for Highlands. The Bulldogs gained three first downs on penalties compared to one on penalties for the Bluebirds.
The big reason for the close score is John Hardin put up 466 yards of total offense to 341 for Highlands. That included 253-60 on the ground. That statistic did not please Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Brian Weinrich.
“It was a crazy game,” Weinrich said. “(The Bulldogs) played well and executed their offense. It’s a bad situation right now. We have to figure some things out.”
John Hardin controlled the time possession holding the ball for 33 minutes and three seconds of the game’s 48 minutes in its ball-control Wing-T attack. The Bulldogs ran 75 plays to 47 for Highlands and garnered 24 first downs to 15 for the Bluebirds. Highlands had 6 first downs via the ground compared to 14 for John Hardin.
John Hardin quarterback Patrick Anderson led the way completing 17-of-26 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. Anderson also rushed for 51 yards on eight carries and a touchdown.
Khalil Frazier led the Bulldogs with 79 yards on 12 carries and DaQuan Deville had 79 on 14 carries. Elijah Smith had the other rushing touchdown.
Dimitri Cooper and Justin Carter led John Hardin with four catches each for 89 and 66 yards respectively. Cooper also had a touchdown reception.
“I don’t think they did anything we were not prepared for,” said Matt Gall, Highlands junior defensive lineman. “We just didn’t do our jobs collectively as a unit. We let our hearts get in the way. We didn’t play with our heads at the end of the game. It’s about better focus and I’m sure we’ll work on that this week.”
Highlands jumped out to a 12-0 lead to start the first quarter. Harris hauled in a 7-yard touchdown from Houliston with 9:14 left and Hergott caught a 5-yard touchdown minutes later.
John Hardin cut the margin to 12-6 with two Jacob Drexler field goals. The second one came with 7:42 left in the half.
Highlands increased its lead to 20-6 after Harris scored from five yards out before adding the two-point conversion run. Highlands missed the first extra-point attempt and did not convert the two-point attempt after the second touchdown.
The Bluebirds looked to put the game away in the third quarter when Hergott hauled in a 16-yard touchdown pass from Houliston. But Smith responded with an 11-yard touchdown. That left the score at 27-12 in favor of Highlands after three quarters when John Hardin failed to convert the two-point try.
Houliston then completed a 12-yard touchdown strike to Feggins. That put Highlands up 33-12 with 11:43 remaining.
But John Hardin did not quit. Anderson completed a 41-yard touchdown to Cooper with 8:50 left before Anderson scored from two yards out to make the final score with 48.3 seconds left in the game setting up Harris’ onside kick recovery.
Highlands hits the road again Saturday at the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado. Game time is 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.