Thursday, December 4, 2014

Highlands faces triple-option attack in state championship game


PHOTO: Allen Ramsey DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior running back Griffin Urlage (20) looks for yardage in Friday's Class 4A state semifinal win over Lexington Catholic. Highlands plays Owensboro for the crown Saturday at Western Kentucky University.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter

The Blue and White have put in the usual hard work and dedication to make it back to this point.

Now that the Highlands Bluebirds football team has made it back to the Class 4A state championship game, there is just one thing on the minds of the players and coaches.

Redemption.

This team hopes to cap off the 100th season in grand fashion and do what the 1960, 1964, 1996 and 2004 teams accomplished. That’s claim a state championship after finishing runner-up the year before.

The Bluebirds (12-2) aim to do that against a team many felt would be there with them in the state championship game in the Owensboro Red Devils (12-2). Game time is 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Saturday at Western Kentucky University’s Feix Field, Houchens/LT Smith Stadium.

The Bluebirds hope to capture their state-record 23rd state championship and seventh in the last eight years while the Red Devils hope to capture their third crown. Owensboro won the Class 2A title in 1974 and the 3A title in 1986.

Highlands lost 37-34 to Collins in last year’s title game. The Titans threw the game-winning touchdown pass with seven seconds left. That ended the Bluebirds’ state-record run of six straight championships.

Highlands will not face the same opponent it faced in the same round of the playoffs the previous year for the first time since the 2012 state championship game. The Blueirds beat Collins, 47-0 in the first-ever meeting between the two programs that year.

Highlands and Owensboro met for the 3A title games in 1999 and 2000 when Gino Guidugli was the quarterback. The Bluebirds won those games at KFEC Cardinal Stadium in Louisville by 48-10 and 48-27 counts respectively.

The Bluebirds hope to continue the momentum from their 47-26 win over Lexington Catholic in the state semifinals. They jumped out to a 28-7 lead over the Knights and did not let the lead dwindle to single digits.

Highlands and Owensboro have one common opponent in the Warren Central Dragons. The Red Devils beat the Dragons, 28-26 on Oct. 3 and the Bluebirds shut out the Dragons, 43-0 on Oct. 31.

Highlands and Owensboro both run 3-4 defenses. The Red Devils have allowed 267 points, 2,309 yards rushing and 1,428 yards passing on the season.

“They don’t do a lot. They’re just good at what they do,” said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. “They have a lot of speed at their skill positions. They have size up front. You have to be right on with execution to get anything on them.”

Offensively, Highlands has proven difficult to cover in its spread offense. The Bluebirds have scored 562 points on the season, rushed for 2,727 yards and passed for 3,348.

Highlands senior quarterback Beau Hoge continues to have a great season. He has completed 220-of-347 passes for 3,254 yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions. Hoge has also rushed for 791 yards on 106 carries and 23 touchdowns.

Senior Alex Veneman has surpassed the 1,500-yard receiving mark with 87 catches for 1,529 yards and 22 touchdowns. Fellow senior Griffin Urlage leads the team with 823 yards rushing on 127 carries and seven touchdowns.

“The key every week is to execute and take what’s there,” Weinrich said. “You can’t get greedy. We’ve done a great job in the playoffs of taking what they give us whether it’s the running game or the passing game until it’s not there. Then we find something that is there. We have to figure out how they’re doing to defend us quick, execute and keep the ball moving. We have to finish drives with scores.”

Owensboro outside linebacker GeKove Gardner leads the Red Devils with 76 tackles. The Bluebirds also must contain defensive lineman VaSaad Greer. Kishawn Walker and Airius Phillips led the Red Devils with four interceptions each and five players have two fumble recoveries each.

Owensboro needed a last-minute miracle to beat North Oldham, 27-24 in the other semifinal game Friday. Red Devil quarterback Nick Locher threw a long pass down the field. It tipped off a North Oldham defender and Owensboro junior wide receiver Jahlil Barrett skill and into the hands of junior Kishawn Walker, who broke free for the  game-winning touchdown.

It was similar to the Nov, 9, 2002 last-second Miracle in the Bluegrass when Louisiana State beat Kentucky, 33-30.

The Bluebirds hope the game does not come down to that. They’ve allowed 270 points, 2,067 yards rushing and 2,264 yards passing this year.

“You have to try to get the ball on the ground,” said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. “That’s the number one thing. You can’t let anyone get behind you at some point and not stop and jump. That’s about all you can really say about it. They try to play hard. Luck went in their favor on that one.”

The Red Devils have scored 543 points on the season. They run the Double-Slot Wing-T offense. They’ve rushed for 3,703 yards and passed for 1,375.

Highlands has seen the Wing-T offense twice this year. John Hardin and Paducah Tilghman both run it.

“It’s basically about putting them in bad positions,” said Rocco Pangallo, Highlands senior linebacker. “If we stop them with no gain on first down, stop them on second down for no gain, they do not like 3rd-and-10. They want a 3rd-and-2. It’s easier to get first downs, move the ball and eat up the clock.”

Anthony James and Locher have taken most of the carries for the Red Devils. James has 1,180 yards rushing on 171 carries and 16 touchdowns and Locher has 732 yards on 130 carries and 18 touchdowns. Nine different Red Devils have touchdowns on the season.

“They just stay with it and keep it working,” Jones said. “They’re preying on (the opponent) making a mistake. If you make mistakes, they take advantage of it.”

Locher is not afraid to put the ball in the air if necessary. He’s completed 66-of-118 passes for 1,349 yards. Barrett leads Owensboro with 16 catches for 340 yards and four touchdowns and Rodney Collier has 16 for 337 yards and five scores.

The game is a battle between the teams with the most and seventh-most wins in Kentucky High School football history. Highlands owns a state-record 867 victories and Owensboro has 713.

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