G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands running back Jaylen Hayes (23) turns the corner in Friday's 62-44 win over Lexington Bryan Station while teammates like Justin Weyer (4) block. The Bluebirds hit the road for the first time this year with a 6 p.m. game in Elizabethtown against John Hardin.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It may not be conventional to play three consecutive road Saturday football contests.
But the Highlands Bluebirds play the first of them Saturday in Elizabethtown against a team they’ve beaten for a state championship during the current run of six in a row and 30-game playoff winning streak. Highlands takes on the John Hardin Bulldogs at 6 p.m. in a rematch of the 2009 Class 5A title game that Highlands won 35-7 in the only other meeting in school history. This comes after three home games to start the year.
One may assume Highlands scheduled things on Saturday to prepare for the big game at Covington Catholic in two weeks. But Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Dale Mueller said that’s how the schedule worked out.
“It was merely set up because we are so struggling to find games,” Mueller said. “Those are the only games we could find. I’d like to say we do that based on some reason. But the only reason we do it is because of who will play us.”
The undefeated Bluebirds (3-0) own a record of 90-3 since the start of 2007 and the Bulldogs have experienced similar success. John Hardin is 77-7 during that time with just one regular season loss in 2008.
John Hardin has had a tough time winning semifinal contests going 1-4 in five straight appearances including two straight losses to two-time 5A champion Bowling Green. The Bulldogs led the Purples, 13-6 late in the fourth quarter. But Purple quarterback Devin Hayes completed a short pass to standout wide receiver Nacarius Fant. Fant then tossed the ball to teammate Blake Pillow on a lateral and Pillow ran 74 yards for a touchdown with 1:36 left in the game. Fant then caught the two-point conversion pass from Hayes for the game-winner for the Purples, 14-13.
John Hardin opened in 2001 and the Bulldogs have not had a losing season since going 3-7 that year. They are 2-1 this year entering the game fresh off a 17-7 win over 6A Meade County on Friday.
The Bulldogs opened the year with a 35-6 win over Louisville Seneca before 2012 Class 2A semifinalist Louisville DeSales edged the Bulldogs, 25-20 on Aug. 30. That loss snapped a 43-game regular season winning streak that dated back to a 27-21 loss at Louisville Doss on Oct. 24, 2008.
John Hardin has a new head coach in Chad Lewis after Mark Brown led the Bulldogs in their first 12 seasons before retiring in January. But Lewis had been an assistant under Brown since the program’s inception including the last four as defensive coordinator.
“Most people would love the opportunity to play in semifinal games as we have the past five years,” Lewis said. “Unfortunately, it seems like this game is the game we hit a roadblock. A lot of that has to do with Bowling Green High being an outstanding program. We have been right in all five semifinal games except for one. If we catch a break here or there, then we would have been in more state title games.”
Highlands has a major advantage coming into the game as a two-platoon team with nearly 100 players. John Hardin has players going both directions with about 40 players listed on the roster.
“When you have as many players as Highlands (does), it allows you to play waves of kids throughout the game,” Lewis said. “We don’t have near that many players so we don’t have the opportunity to platoon. I wish we did, but we are not in that situation.”
The Bulldogs return just two offensive starters from last year including senior quarterback and free safety Patrick Anderson. Lewis said the offense flows through him in John Hardin’s double-slot Wing-T formation.
Anderson completed 5-of-7 passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns against Seneca to go with three interceptions and a fumble recovery defensively. Anderson completed 79-of-146 passes for 1,837 yards, 29 touchdowns and six interceptions last year.
“We will stop the run and react to the pass,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “(Anderson) is a good athlete that makes plays. We will continue to focus on being fundamentally sound in all aspects of our defense. We don’t spend much time worrying about the other team with our guys. ‘Paralysis by analysis’ is what we do not want. Our game plan rarely changes from week to week. We worry about us.”
John Hardin graduated its top rusher and receiver from last year. Wade Holtsclaw rushed for 1,225 yards on 101 carries and 20 touchdowns last year with Dorian Collins hauling in 36 passes for 1,022 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Khalil Frazier and DaQuan Deville are trying to make up for Holtsclaw’s production in the backfield. Frazier ran for 75 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns against Seneca with Deville rushing for 94 yards on seven carries with a score. Deville also had two catches with Lavonte Wilson recording the longest reception of 28 yards.
The Highlands 3-4 defense has allowed an average of 23 points per game and 327 yards. Braden Hicks, Brady Murray and Joey Kruse lead the Bluebirds with two tackles for a loss with Hicks recording a sack. Joey Cochran, Matt Gall, Jake Parker and Thomas Wrobleski all have one fumble recovery with Griffin Urlage and Rocco Pangallo making one interception a piece. The Bluebirds faced a Wing-T team in University Christian to start the year.
“Basically, you focus on your (defensive) keys and keep everything in front of you as a secondary,” said Grayson Heck, Highlands junior defensive back. “(Facing University Christian) is going to help. Getting as many (repetitions) as we can against (a Wing-T offense) will help us.”
Highlands will counter with a Spread offense that is averaging 53 points and 477 yards of offense per game. The Bluebirds love to hustle to the line of scrimmage after the play ends and snap the ball quickly out of their no-huddle offense.
“We’re running all the time in winter weights,” said Sean Lemmons, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “That’s one of Coach Mueller’s main focuses. He always says if we save five seconds a play, we’re going to have five extra minutes at the end of the game with how many we plays we run. It just gives us a big advantage in tiring teams down. With our offseason program, we don’t get tired like they do.”
The Bluebirds scored eight touchdowns on eight possessions in the first half of the 62-44 win over Lexington Bryan Station on Friday. They’d love a similar start after not scoring any points in the first quarter of home wins over University Christian (Fla.) and Campbell County.
The Bluebirds are led by quarterback Drew Houliston and running back Zach Harris. Houliston has completed 54-of-76 passes for exactly 1000 yards, 14 touchdowns and one interception. Harris has rushed for 298 yards on 34 attempts and seven touchdowns and caught nine passes for 174 yards and seven touchdowns.
Junior Jensen Feggins leads the Bluebird receivers with 10 catches for 157 yards and two scores. Twelve different Bluebirds have catches this year.
The Bulldog 4-4 defense is led by senior 6-foot-6 inch, 335-pound senior defensive lineman Matt Elam, junior linebacker Maleek Moody and senior linebacker Chris Smith. Moody and Smith led John Hardin with nine tackles each against Seneca.
“They’re big and fast,” Mueller said. “They really play a well-disciplined defense. We’ve been playing some three-man fronts so a four-man front can be a different look for you. If they blitz a guy, now they’ve got five guys coming. You have to first be able to block those guys before you can run a play.”
A Bluebird win would equal the 300th career victory as head coach for Mueller. Mueller’s record is 299-65 overall, including 240-34 at his alma mater. The 1973 Highlands alum went 48-12 at Cincinnati Withrow and 11-19 at Cincinnati Sycamore before coming back to Fort Thomas in 1994.