By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
LEXINGTON – The Highlands Bluebirds football team once again forced the running clock.
It may have saved them in the end of a 49-35 Class 4A semifinal victory against the host Lexington Catholic Knights on Friday. Highlands (13-1) won its state-record 34th consecutive playoff game. The Bluebirds have outscored those opponents by 1,142 points for an average of about 33.6 points per game.
The Bluebirds built a 42-7 mostly through their vaunted deep passing game. They outgained the Knights (10-4), 398-204 in total offense in that half and enforced the running clock with 8:09 left in the half.
But LexCath did not quit and cut the lead to 42-35 with 3:45 left in the game. But Highlands made the plays down the stretch to earn another Class 4A semifinal win. LexCath ended up winning the statistical battle, 457-449.
“I think a lot of that was my fault. We were relaxing,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “We took Drew (Houliston) and Zach (Harris) out. We went into halftime feeling good about ourselves. Football is just not that kind of game. LexCath is an explosive team. You just can’t relax against a team like that.”
But Highlands did win the turnover battle, 3-2. Junior Griffin Urlage had an interception and fumble recovery with Brady Murray recovering another fumble. Highlands followed with two quick touchdowns after the fumble recoveries and Urlage’s interception with 1:21 left in the game let the Bluebirds run out the clock.
“That interception felt really good,” Urlage said. “They had some really good receivers. (Ryan) had a slinger on him. We unfortunately weren’t keeping our guys in front.”
Brandon Hergott returned an onside kick to the Lexington Catholic 12 with 3:45 left in the game. Highlands lined up in its full-house backfield and Harris ran the ball to the LexCath 1 before plunging in to make the final score.
“Before the play, everyone said to catch the ball and get down,” Hergott said. “But I saw the opening. I just made sure I didn’t fumble the ball. That’s just one big time play that everyone looks forward to making.”
Hergott scored on a touchdown against Warren Central in the season finale. LexCath recovered an onside kick with about 6:30 left in the game.
“On a rule change on an onside kick, they’re not allowed to hit you the first 10 yards,” Mueller said. “Brandon Hergott is just such a heads-up guy. He really attacked the ball. When they were roaring back, that was the play of the game.”
Houliston finished with 357 yards passing completing 14-of-17 passes with four touchdowns. Jensen Feggins led the way with four catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns and Alex Veneman had three for 150 with one touchdown.
“That was really key early on,” Veneman said. “They had Jensen (Feggins) one-on-one and Jensen had a couple big catches. They put more guys on him then I became open. They played some man on me, which is pretty nice. (The deep pass) worked every time.”
The Bluebirds have 60 touchdown passes on the year and Houliston has thrown 48 of them. That breaks the school record for touchdown passes in a season of 59 set back in 2000. Gino Guidugli set the individual record at 53 for touchdowns in a season.
Houliston completed 11-of-14 passes for 325 yards and all four touchdowns in the first half. The Highlands offensive line kept the Knight defenders off the skill position players.
“I think offensive lines are underrated just because they’re not really seen as much on the field,” said Sam Little, Highlands senior offensive lineman. “The touchdowns are scored by the wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks. I don’t think we care (about the attention) as much. We know we are respected by our skill players.”
Harris scored three touchdowns rushing 10 times for 94 yards. The first one gave the Bluebirds the lead for good on a 21-yard scamper just 1:24 into the game. He now has 1,000 yards rushing on the year. Harris is just the third back in the Mueller Era to record consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The other two were Eamon Mueller and Justin Frisk in the mid-90s.
The Bluebirds led 21-0 after two quarters following two Knight fumbles. Houliston found Feggins over the middle with 4:38 left before Murray recovered a Knight fumble and returned it to the LexCath 41. On the next play with 1:47 left in the quarter, Feggins scored on a deep 41-yard route.
On fourth-and-8 with 10:42 left in the second, Houliston found Beau Hoge in the left corner to put Highlands up 28-0. About three minutes later, Veneman ran a deep 86-yard play down the field and Harris scored the two-point conversion run to enforce the running clock.
Highlands responded to a Reese Ryan 44-yard touchdown pass to Noah Mitchell with another score to make the halftime 42-7 advantage. Harris scored from a yard out.
Ryan completed 22-of-31 passes for 369 yards. He had 145 in the first half. David Bouvier led LexCath with seven catches for 142 yards and three touchdowns and Sam Letton had 11 for 122.
“We were shutting them down in the first half,” Murray said. “We got pressure on (Ryan) in the pocket. We play our best when (turnovers) happen.”
Highlands will own the record to its lonesome on Saturday with a win. The Bluebirds and Louisville Trinity are tied for the most state championships in Kentucky with 22 each.