By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It is normally about daily improvement each and every game and practice.
But the shift changes to taking down the Boyd County Lions this week for the Highlands Bluebirds football team. That’s when you know the playoffs have arrived because a loss means the season is over.
The Bluebirds and Lions meet for the third straight year in the opening round of the Class 4A playoffs on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. The Bluebirds won the previous two meetings by a combined 123-21.
The Lions enter the game 1-9 overall after coming in with 5-5 records the previous two seasons. They lost 21-16 against the Tolsia Rebels (West Virginia) on Friday. They are also on their third head coach in three seasons in John Gilliam after Ray Brooks stepped down after last season.
“Winning the state championship means a lot to us,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “Boyd is working hard. (The Lions) have had a lot of losses this year. We’re definitely the favorite. But teams get upset. The best team in the league can get beat by the worst team in the league. We haven’t won 96 of the last 100 games because we take games lightly, especially the playoffs. We won’t come out looking past them at all.”
Teams have outscored the Lions, 373-176. The only time Boyd County has scored more than 19 points in a game came in its lone 25-21 win at District 8 rival Greenup County on Oct. 25. That win propelled the Lions into the playoffs.
The vaunted Highlands offense will face a 4-3 Boyd County defense. Mueller said the Lions run a 4-3 defense that gives multiple looks such as employing a zone defense one play before going to a man-to-man with no one deep on the next play.
The vaunted Bluebird spread offense consistently lights up scoreboards having scored 71-plus points three times this year. They average 52.2 points and 445.5 yards per game and have scored 75 touchdowns. Highlands has scored 39 touchdowns on 45 trips to the red zone for about 87 percent.
Senior quarterback Drew Houliston has completed 157-of-226 passes for 2,702 yards, 35 touchdowns and two interceptions behind solid protection from the offensive line. If he can’t go, junior Beau Hoge will go under center. Hoge has completed 29-of-47 passes for nine touchdowns and an interception.
Their leading target has been Jensen Feggins with 38 catches for 786 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior Zach Harris has 28 catches for 462 yards and nine touchdowns and also leads the team with 712 yards rushing on 100 carries and 16 scores.
“We can catch the ball better,” Feggins said. “We had some drops (in the 71-69 win over Warren Central on Friday) – one for myself and other teammates of mine. We’re fast enough and our routes are good enough. Our problem is we try to run before we catch the ball. We need to look it in more, tuck it, then take off.”
The Highlands defense wants to bounce back from a tough performance Friday. Warren Central torched the injury-riddled 3-4 Bluebird defense for a state-record 918 yards of total offense, including 716 on the ground. Highlands hopes to have players like Griffin Urlage, Thomas Wrobleski and Andrew Abner back this week.
“We were in sound position,” said Braden Hicks, Highlands senior defensive end. “There were just some fundamental things we needed to fix. We got them fixed this week so we’re looking to have a really great game.”
Opponents are scoring at a clip of 23.9 points per game and are averaging 358.5 yards per game. Seth Hope leads Highlands with seven tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Urlage and Bardo have two interceptions a piece for the Bluebirds.
Senior Billy McCoy returns to quarterback the Lions. He hands the ball off to a number of backs such as Jason Smith. Smith had 122 yards on 20 carries to lead the Lions in the loss Friday. Highlands Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator said Boyd County runs several packages such as the Stack-I and some spread formations.
Turnovers hurt Boyd County against Tolisa. The Rebels returned an interception 85 yards for a touchdown and a fumble 65 yards for a score.
“We have to try to take advantage of (turnovers) when they happen,” Weinrich said. “If we can get more guys around the ball and get tighter on our coverage, the fumbles and interceptions can only help us. The team that gets the most turnovers usually wins the game.”
Highlands has never lost in the first round of the playoffs since Mueller became head coach in 1994. The Bluebirds have won 30 straight playoff games by an average of about 33 points per game during that run of six consecutive state championships.
Biggest Threats to #StairwaytoSeven:
Highlands is a heavy favorite in the first two rounds.
The region championship game could be the biggest challenge for Highlands against either Covington Catholic or undefeated Johnson Central. The Colonels are getting healthy and saw running back Luke Bir return recently.
But the Golden Eagles boast a balanced Wishbone backfield. Their three running backs are seniors Jordan Young, Josh Dillon and junior Daymion Belcher.
Top-ranked Highlands could then meet undefeated Boyle County in the semifinals. Senior Seph Burke leads the Rebels with 851 yards rushing and 96 tackles.
But 9-1 Russell County and 7-3 Lexington Catholic could have something to say about that. Aside from Boyle County, the two Knight losses have come to undefeated Bowling Green and Louisville St. Xavier. The lone loss for the Lakers came to Class 5A’s second-ranked Pulaski County Maroons.
Collins could again come through the other side of the bracket at 8-2 overall. The Titans return quarterback Lawson Page and running back Deandre Farris. Page has completed 142-of-233 passes for 2,207 yards, 26 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
Owensboro could be the biggest challenge to the Titans. The Red Devils have lost to 5A powers Warren Central, Bowling Green as well as a one-point 28-27 decision to Henderson County to conclude the season.