|Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands senior linebacker Jacob Noe (29) hones in on John Hardin running back Antonio Ayers (center) in Friday's game. The Bluebirds take on the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado at 3 p.m. Saturday.|
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
It is definitely not easy traveling five and a half hours to play a regular season football game.
The Highlands Bluebirds did it a year ago and pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 42-27 victory over the Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado in their first-ever meeting in Paducah. In their case, it also did not help that one of the three busses that took the team there broke down after the game.
On Saturday, the Bluebirds (3-0) will have the home field advantage against Paducah Tilghman (1-3) as the Blue Tornado will come to Fort Thomas for the first time ever. Game time is 3 p.m.
“(The players) are pretty resilient,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “They’ll play whenever. Ever since they’ve been here, we’ve played Saturdays and Friday nights. We’ve played all over Kentucky. They’re just ready to play a game.”
Last year’s meeting marked the first time the proud programs met since 1994. The first five meetings took place on neutral sites. The Bluebirds beat the Blue Tornado, 7-3 and 15-6 in the 1989 and 1992 Class 3A state championship games respectively when Tom Duffy was the head coach. Highlands leads the all-time series, 5-1.
The Blue Tornado players will not only have to deal with the unique environment of Cecil Memorial Stadium where the Bluebirds have lost just once since 2006 and the 100-year celebration festivities, they will be making an overnight trip. First-year Paducah Tilghman Head Coach Mike Rogers came to Fort Thomas as the head coach of Warren Central last year in the high-scoring 71-69 Highlands win.
“There is no doubt the trip is a huge mountain to climb,” Rogers said. “High school players are not used to overnight trips. This is a huge expense for a regular season game and one that really doesn’t make sense to me, but we will make it happen.”
Highlands will have a depth advantage with 98 players that are sophomores, juniors and seniors listed on the roster and no one playing both directions. Paducah Tilghman lists 49 players in all four grades with a number of them playing both directions.
Rogers said it will take a few years to build depth. The Blue Tornado have been playing more players compared to a few weeks ago.
The Blue Tornado enter the game off their first win of the season, 36-22 against Graves County. They dropped their first three contests.
Offensively, Paducah Tilghman implemented the traditional and double-slot Wing-T offense after running a spread under former Head Coach Randy Wyatt last year.
Senior D.J. Sherrill led the Blue Tornado with 181 yards rushing on 22 carries after the first three games. Paducah Tilghman likes to motion Sherrill and some of his teammates from the slot. That’s where the Highlands 3-4 defense needs to be on its guard. They also ran several inside counters against the Mustangs.
“The inside linebackers pick up (the motion) and still read their guy on the line of scrimmage,” said Conner Welsch, Highlands junior outside linebacker. “They have to squeeze and read their keys. A lot of times, motioning is trying to make you not do your job. That’s when they’ll come with a cutback when you’re out of position.”
The Blue Tornado have seen the passing game get better in recent weeks. Junior quarterback Jessie Dunigan completed 29-of-59 passes for 418 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions in the first three games. Junior Sayveen McEwen has been his top target with six catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns in three games. McCracken County made Dunigan uncomfortable in the pocket with solid pass rushing from the outside.
“They’re going to pass a lot more than (John Hardin) did last week (going 0-for-5) because that’s more a part of their offense,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “(Dunigan) is a nice quarterback. He gets the ball out when he needs to and makes some good decisions. We want to hone in on him a bit. If we trust our keys and trust what we’re doing, a lot of that stuff takes care of itself.”
The Bluebird defense allowed just 171 yards total in the 49-7 win over John Hardin on Friday. Opponents are averaging 310 yards against Highlands including 175 on the ground.
Highlands has 17 tackles for a loss for 43 yards. Senior linebacker Brady Murray leads the Bluebirds with 3.5. Murray, D.J. Mills and Luke Lindeman have one quarterback sack each. Rogers knows Paducah Tilghman will have to earn its yards against the disciplined 3-4 Bluebird defense.
“We have to find a way to sustain drives against them and keep their offense off the field,” Rogers said. “This is a very tough thing to do because they play great defense and tackle extremely well. We will have to play mistake-free football and minimize penalties throughout (the game).”
The Bluebirds would like to create more turnovers defensively. They have just two on the season. Senior Patrick Schoepf recovered a fumble against Campbell County and senior defensive back Andrew Abner had the game-sealing interception against Lexington Bryan Station.
“That’s obviously the focus of most teams defensively,” Jones said. “Our main goal is to get faster and a little stronger and be smart up front. Some teams you play do a good job holding onto it and not turning it over. We want to stop teams from scoring ultimately.”
The Highlands offense picked up speed recently. The Bluebirds average 39.7 points per game and 479.3 yards. The balanced spread offense has put up 723 yards rushing and 715 passing.
“We’re getting there,” Weinrich said. “They’re learning and I’m learning. We’re trying to figure out each week what it is we need to do to make that week successful.”
Senior Griffin Urlage leads Highlands with 280 yards rushing on 46 attempts and two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Beau Hoge has 203 yards rushing on 26 carries and six touchdowns.
Hoge did not run much against John Hardin. He has completed 42-of-67 passes for 681 yards and six scores. Senior Alex Veneman leads Highlands with 17 catches for 344 yards and five touchdowns and junior Mitch Cain is next with seven for 93 yards. Urlage and senior Cashel Coughlin also have five catches each. Others may soon be getting in the mix.
“Having chemistry with Beau will be key for the whole season,” said Justin Weyer, Highlands senior wide receiver. “We want to be running routes so he can throw the ball even before we’re looking for the ball. It might look like he’s only on the same page with Alex. But he’s on with all of us.”
Paducah Tilghman plays a 4-3 defense. Sherrill and junior Jordan Overstreet had one interception each in the first three games and senior defensive lineman Quennon Wilson led the Blue Tornado with 19 tackles.
Highlands wants to improve its third-down conversion percentage. The Bluebirds have converted 18-of-39 third-down plays for 46 percent.
Once the final horn ends Saturday, Highlands can prepare for Covington Catholic. The Colonels have this week off.