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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Road swing takes Bluebirds to Paducah

G. Michael Graham Photo. Highlands junior wide receiver Beau Hoge looks for running room in Saturday's game at John Hardin. The Bluebirds meet Paducah Tilghman on Saturday for the first time since 1994 at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time in Paducah.

Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The next opponent may not be familiar to the current football players.

But the name brings back many memories of great games, especially during Tom Duffy’s time as the Head Coach of the Highlands Bluebirds. The Bluebirds and Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado met five times between 1989 and 1994.

Highlands claimed both Class 3A titles under Duffy against Tilghman at Louisville in 1989 (27-3) and 1992 (15-6). But what some people might forget is Highlands and Tilghman also met during the regular season in both years. Tilghman beat Highlands, 25-24 in the Hall of Fame Bowl at Hendersoun County in 1989 for its lone win in the series in five games and the Bluebirds beat the Blue Tornado, 25-19 in the Thoroughbred Bowl at Lexington Takes Creek in 1992.

The two schools met again in the Thoroughbred Bowl in the same location in current Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Dale Mueller’s first year in 1994. The Bluebirds won 26-6 led by current Campbell County Head Coach Stephen Lickert and Justin Frisk.

The two will meet again for the first time on either home field on Saturday at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The Bluebirds travel to the western part of the state for the first time since winning 48-21 at Hopkinsville on Oct. 4, 2008.

The two schools have a combined 25 state championships. Highlands has won six in a row going 91-3 since the start of 2007 and Tilghman has three state championships in 2009, 1985 and 1973. Tilghman competes in Class 3A, District 1 with Fort Campbell, Trigg County and Webster County.

“Once I saw Highlands on film, I told my staff that our kids need to learn to play the way they play,” said Randy Wyatt, Tilghman Head Coach. “They are a combination of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Marines. They take orders and carry them out 110 percent. They were that way when we played them back in the last 1980s and nothing has changed.”

Both teams that sport blue and white want to right the ship in different ways. The Class 4A top-ranked Bluebirds (4-0) hope to put away an opponent better than Saturday’s 33-26 win at John Hardin. It took senior Zach Harris recovering a Bulldog onside kick with 43 seconds left to seal the win.

Highlands averaged 53 points a game entering that contest and still averages 48. Turnovers kept the Bluebirds from putting away the Bulldogs. The finished minus-2 in that department losing three fumbles while recovering just John Hardin mishap.

“We’ll have a greater emphasis on that (in practice),” Mueller said. “We’ll do a good bit of center-quarterback-running back (exchanges). In big games, ball security is the most important aspect of winning the game.”

Tilghman wants to get back into the win column entering the game at 1-3 following three straight losses to Evansville (Ind.) Reitz (28-16), Mayfield (28-21) and Graves County (30-27) in overtime. The Blue Tornado opened with a 24-23 win over newly-formed McCracken County High comprised of former Lone Oak, Reidland and Heath students. Opponents are outscoring them about 27-22. Tilghman has had problems scoring at key times in ballgames.

“We are still confident in our season,” Wyatt said. “After this week, we will be entering the second half of our season, and I feel that we are so close despite our 1-3 record. Everything we are doing is self-inflicted. We are our own worst enemy.”

The Highlands Spread offense is averaging 443 yards a contest. The Bluebirds have scored 16 touchdowns in 18 drives into the Red Zone for 89 percent. Highlands quarterback Drew Houliston has completed 74-of-105 passes for 1,281 yards, 18 touchdowns and just one interception. Senior running back Zach Harris leads the Bluebirds with 362 yards rushing on 47 carries with eight touchdowns and 14 receptions for 233 yards and five touchdowns.

Twelve different Bluebirds have catches this year. Junior Jensen Feggins follows Harris with 13 catches for 191 yards and three touchdowns.

Some have wondered about the rushing production of senior Jaylen Hayes. Hayes has 68 yards rushing on 15 carries with one touchdown. Mueller joked that he needs to petition the Kentucky High School Athletic Association for three balls so he can spread the wealth to more of the playmakers like Hayes. But Mueller said Hayes’ time will come like it will with other talented skill position players.

The Bluebird offensive line continues to block well. Highlands has allowed just three sacks on the year and held John Hardin 6-foot-6-inch, 330-pound defensive lineman Matt Elam, an NCAA Division I recruit, to just one tackle in the win Saturday.

“The offseason gets us ready to go against pretty much any competition we face,” said Kyler Dalton, Highlands junior offensive lineman. “Going against Matt Elam, we knew he was a big guy. We had to block him as well as we could. We ended up blocking him well as an offensive line, especially Bryan Saunders and Tyler Schweitzer. They had a heck of a game.”

Tilghman runs a stack 3-3 defense and does have players going both ways. The Blubirds face another talented offensive and defensive lineman in Blue Tornado senior Derik Overstreet. Overstreet led the team with 21 tackles after two games. Highlands tends to wear down teams that have players going both directions.

“They play a multiple-front defense and give you different coverages,” Mueller said. “They blitz a wide variety of guys so they can really keep you guessing. You have to be prepared for multiple stunts. They’re the kind of team that will come up with a new stunt specifically for you.”

The Highlands 3-4 defense will also face a Tilghman Spread. Sophomore quarterback Jessie Dunigan completed 26-of-48 passes for 342 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in the first two games. Dunigan’s top targets were seniors Darrius Spivey-Nunn with 11 catches for 155 yards and a touchdown and Michael Davis with eight catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Junior Djuan Sherrill led Tilghman after two games with 204 yards rushing on 32 carries and a touchdown.

“It sure doesn’t seem to me that they are struggling to score,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator. “We are fine and will continue to improve each day on everything we do.”

Opponents have averaged 23.8 points a game and 361.8 yards a contest against the Bluebirds. Brady Murray and Seth Hope lead the Highlands 3-4 defense with three tackles for a loss and Braden Hicks has the team’s lone quarterback sack. Griffin Urlage and Rocco Pangallo have one interception each for Highlands while five different players own one fumble recovery each. Weinrich said the team does not like to overanalyze opponents.

“(The defensive coaches) break (the game) down so simple,” said Avery McDaniel, Highlands senior defensive lineman. “Once we go over it in film (sessions), we practice it out on the field. It gets simpler and simpler. It’s about knowing the bases come game time.”

This marks the final tune-up for Highlands before traveling to arch-rival Covington Catholic on Sept. 28 at 1 p.m. The Colonels used their bye week to prepare for the game.

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