Thursday, November 13, 2014

Who do the Bluebirds need to contain in the second round of the playoffs?

Allen Ramsey Photo. Highlands running back Ben Branch (23) takes the ball right in Friday's game against Boyd County. The Bluebirds battle the Ashland Tomcats in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs on Friday.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The Highlands Bluebirds football team welcomes challenges to Cecil Memorial Stadium anytime, especially during the playoffs.

The Bluebirds tend to pick up the intensity in the playoffs and they hope to see that momentum carry over into the second round against a familiar opponent. Highlands owns two shutouts in its previous four games.

“Our intensity hasn’t really changed,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “Every day, we expect them to show up and get work done. We have had a great couple of days so far and will continue to prepare every day to get better at everything we do.”

The Bluebirds (9-2) have beaten the Ashland Blazer Tomcats in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs the past two years. But they’ve not faced Ashland junior standout running back and University of Kentucky commit Quinton Baker.

They may earn that opportunity Friday as they meet the Tomcats (6-4) for the third straight year in the second round. Baker was injured in the 52-13 Highlands win in 2012 and sick in last year’s Highlands 56-6 victory in a downpour. Game time is 7:30 p.m.

The Bluebirds know they need to contain Baker defensively in their 3-4 defense. Baker has rushed for 1,480 yards on 162 carries and 18 touchdowns on the season.

Highlands has 39 tackles for a loss on the season for a total of 111 yards lost. Junior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson has six for 16 yards and senior linebacker Brady Murray has five for 13 yards. Robinson and Murray also rank first and second with four and three sacks respectively.

“We’re hoping to do what we’re taught to do,” Robinson said. “That’s squeeze our gaps, keep our gaps and hope that causes them to think a little bit more. (Baker) is pretty slippery, but I think the way we were taught to tackle, we’ll at least be able to hold on to him so we can gang tackle him.”

The Bluebirds would not mind creating more turnovers. They have seven interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. Senior defensive back James Hinkel has two interceptions to lead Highlands and senior linebacker Patrick Schoepf has a team-high three fumble recoveries.

“If you have the leaders showing the younger guys what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to act, we’re continuing to grow there,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Head Coach. “I think as the season goes on, some of the younger guys have a hard time keeping that intensity. But if they see the older guys doing it, they really pick up on that and it helps them down the road.”

The Tomcats have tried to throw in some balance this year with quarterback Hunter Prince and running back Jake Long. Long transferred in from Ironton (Ohio) last year. Long has 882 yards on 73 rushes for nine touchdowns.

Prince has added 67 carries for 439 yards and five touchdowns.

“They have several great athletes back there,” Jones said. “They have a lot of good ways of getting (Baker and Long) the ball going downhill and trying to get them in space. They try to exploit teams up front.”

Ashland throws the ball about 8.5 times per game. Prince has completed 38-of-84 passes for 702 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Trent Woods has hauled in 15 catches for 283 yards and two touchdowns.

“More importantly, we need to get a body on a body to allow (Prince and Long’s) skill sets to move the ball consistently,” said Tony Love, second-year Ashland Head Coach. “Obviously if you are one-dimentional, you create difficulties for you line so we will continue to spread the ball throughout personel along with a blend of the trap and power run as well as play-action pass.”

Ashland will have to figure out a way to contain the Highlands spread offense if it wants a chance to win. The versatile Bluebirds average 40.7 points per game and 413.5 yards of offense.

Highlands senior quarterback Beau Hoge has shown great leadership all season. Hoge has completed 177-of-276 passes for 2,666 yards and 30 touchdowns with just five interceptions. Hoge also has 61 carries for 527 yards and five touchdowns.

“Highlands is not a complicated offensive team,” Love said. “They just execute at a high level and that’s what we need to do. We need to force turnovers in order to win the game. Also, our offense needs to be able to control the ball and try to shorten the game.”

The Bluebird offensive line has blocked well lately. Senior Griffin Urlage has 527 yards rushing on 93 carries and five touchdowns. Junior Nick Kendall is third with 

356 yards on 47 carries and two touchdowns.

Like many games, the Bluebirds own a mental advantage in this game. They’ve gone 109-7 since the start of 2007 including a 34-1 record in the playoffs with six state championships and a runner-up finish last year.

The Bluebirds are 32-5-1 all-time against the current teams in District 8-4A including 20-5-1 against Ashland. Highlands has beaten the Tomcats 14 straight times.

But after consistently playing each other in the 1960s, the teams have met just four times since 1969. They’ve been in the second round of the playoffs. In addition to the last two years, the Bluebirds beat the Tomcats in 1992 (41-13) and 2008 (53-6).

The Tomcats last beat the Bluebirds, 38-7 in 1954 before tieing, 20-20 in 1955. Recently-retired Highlands Head Coach Dale Mueller was born about the time the Tomcats last beat the Bluebirds.

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