By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
PADUCAH – It does not matter if their schedule takes them to the Jackson Purchase or the deep, dark hills of eastern Kentucky.
Few teams in the country, let alone the Bluegrass State, win as consistently as the Highlands Bluebirds football team. The Bluebirds may not have dominated like usual. But they did put away the pesky host Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado in the fourth quarter, 42-25 on Saturday.
“It was great to see the offense, defense and special teams come through when we needed them,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “Paducah Tilghman played a great game and is going to be a real force in the playoffs. Winning is important to our guys.”
Highlands stayed undefeated at 5-0 and improved to 92-3 since 2007 with the win and 847-225-26 in school history since the program began back in 1915. On the other side, the Blue Tornado (1-4) dropped their fourth in a row since opening the year with a 24-23 win on Aug. 24 at newly-formed county rival McCracken County.
“We don’t buy into moral victories,” said Randy Wyatt, Tilghman Head Coach. “But I’m extremely proud of how we fought against a team like Highlands rated the second-best team in the state in all six classes. They’re just a classic program. They answered every time. That’s the sign of a champion. They did everything right.”
Highlands played its second of three consecutive Saturday games. But the Bluebirds did not secure the game at John Hardin a week ago until senior Zach Harris recovered an onside kick with 43 seconds left.
Highlands elected to rest Harris. But the Bluebirds once again put up huge offensive numbers outgaining the Blue Tornado, 375-314. Highlands had 17 first downs to 10 for Tilghman.
But fellow senior Jaylen Hayes picked up the slack for Highlands rushing the ball 20 times for 154 yards and two touchdowns. Hayes scored once on a shotgun zone read play and the second one taking a direct snap in the Highlands full-house backfield.
Highlands senior quarterback Drew Houliston once again came through completing 16-of-26 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Junior Jensen Feggins led the Bluebirds with six catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bluebirds had to make some adjustments against the Tilghman defense. The Blue Tornado recorded six sacks in the game. Houliston had been sacked just three times all season entering the contest.
“They were running delayed blitzes,” said Bryan Saunders, Highlands offensive lineman. “It’s hard to cover everyone.”
Tre Coleman led the Blue Tornado with 113 yards on 10 carries. He broke free for an 80-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But the Bluebirds made some adjustments on him after that.
“We made some linebacker adjustments,” said Joey Cochran, Highlands senior linebacker. “We put in some more aggressive guys and made sure that didn’t happen anymore. We clogged up the hole.”
Tilghman threw a lot of short passes with sophomore quarterback Jesse Dunigan. He completed 20-of-27 passes for 136 yards. Senior Mikey Davis led the Blue Tornado with seven catches for 56 yards.
Both teams lost one fumble. Jackson Bardo recovered a Tilghman fumble in the fourth quarter and Highlands lost one in the first quarter.
The Bluebirds did not score in the first quarter for the third time this season. They trailed 6-0 after the first quarter after two Logan Besaw field goals from 26 and 42 yards out.
Highlands took the lead for good at 7-6 when Houliston scored around the left side from six yards out and Jared Dougherty made his first of six extra-point attempts. Highlands wide receiver Ryan Greene returned a kickoff back to the Highlands 49 to start the drive.
The Bluebirds drove deep into Blue Tornado territory on their next possession. But the Blue Tornado blocked the field-goal attempt.
But Highlands scored on its next possession. Houliston rolled left and found Feggins open for an 8-yard score.
The Bluebirds then responded to Coleman’s quick score. On 4th-and-5 from the Tilghman 7 with 53 seconds left in the half, Houliston found Jake Whitford in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. The Bluebirds led 21-12 at halftime.
“It was a big play,” Whitford said. “It got us going at halftime. After that, Drew (Houliston) just took over. They couldn’t stop us after that. Once we get in a rhythm, we’re hard to beat.”
Tilghman ate up a lot of the clock on a long drive to start the third quarter. Instead of throwing the short sideline routes, they threw 10-15 yards down the field to keep the Bluebird defense guessing. Dunigan scored on a 1-yard run to cut the margin to 21-19 with just more than three minutes left in the third.
“We played off (the Tilghman receivers) because they’re good athletes,” said Alex Shadle, Highlands senior defensive back. “That left things open for the out routes and comebacks.”
The Bluebirds then scored with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Hayes scored from eight yards out after Houliston completed a 26-yard pass to Alex Veneman.
But the Blue Tornado marched back down the field. Out of the Power-I formation, Dunigan faked a handoff then found Jordan Tyler for a 22-yard touchdown reception. The two-point pass failed as Highlands still led 28-25.
“When you have a team like that down, you have to close the door,” Wyatt said. “A tough team like that is going to fight back. They’re conditioned to win close ballgames. We just need to get that way.”
The Bluebirds then put the game away with two touchdowns. Houliston found Feggins for a 9-yard score. That came after Tilghman sacked Houliston on third down, but the Blue Tornado committed a defensive holding penalty giving the Bluebirds another chance. Hayes then scored his second touchdown on a 41-yard scamper.
Highlands concludes its three-game Saturday road swing this week at Covington Catholic (3-1). Game time is 1 p.m. in Park Hills.