Bluebirds take care of business once again
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. The Highlands cheerleaders hold up a banner commemorating members of the senior class before Friday's game against Grant County.|
The Highlands Bluebirds (4-5 overall, 3-0 district) came out clicking on all cylinders moving the ball at will on offense and held its ground defensively on third down against the Grant County Braves (3-6, 0-3) on all but two drives in the first half. Add some solid play on special teams and it led to a 42-6 halftime lead for the Bluebirds before the reserves took over in the second half in a 56-22 Highlands Class 5A, District 5 victory.
"We came out trying to focus on ourselves," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "That's what we've been doing every week. I thought we came out a little flat, but I thought we picked it up after that. We just need to get better every week, gain confidence and take steps forward."
It started the moment junior Bradley Greene touched the ball on the opening kickoff. He ran the kickoff down the right sideline for an 84-yard return to put Highlands on the scoreboard just 14 seconds into the game. Greene ended up gaining 111 yards on two kickoff returns and 34 more on four punt returns to put the Highlands offense in good field position.
The Highlands offensive line and skill position players opened up a lot of holes against the Brave defense to the tune 345 yards with 263 coming on the ground and 82 through the air to go with 15 first downs. The Bluebirds scored on five of their six first-half possessions.
"Every week, we just have to get better at executing what we're doing," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We take advantage of what we think is there against them. The guys executed really, really well again."
Depth again helped Highlands wear down an opponent. The Bluebirds rotated a number of guys in at various positions to keep people fresh.
"We have a lot of linemen who can rotate and play the position well," said Michael Davidson, Highlands junior offensive lineman. "We're taking advantage of who we got and putting them in when we can. Everyone plays physical and plays hard in practice. We're getting better every day."
The Bluebirds hit the running clock with just 7:07 left in the first half. That marked the first time Highlands did that this year. Scott County, Louisville St. Xavier and Simon Kenton hit the running clock against the Bluebirds earlier in the year.
Highlands has not played Grant County since the two found themselves in the same district in 2006. The Bluebirds moved to 7-0 against the Braves all-time.
Nick Kendall again led Highlands with 81 yards rushing on nine carries to go with two touchdowns. Junior Jared Pulsfort added 58 yards on four carries and quarterback Austin Hergott had two 1-yard rushing touchdowns on quarterback dives behind center Evan Richardson.
"They're so fast and they're starting to play well," said Kevin Siple, Grant County Head Coach. "You can see the improvement in the last couple weeks. I told the kids it's going to be kind of intimidating. You have to use your technique to make tackles because they're going to break tackles. It's a challenge for us to hang in there with that group."
Hergott completed 6-of-10 passes for 82 yards to go with a touchdown and interception. Senior Ryan Conley led Highlands with two catches for 82 yards. Highlands has run the ball well in its four wins, but the Bluebirds know the passing game may need to lead them to victory at some point.
Grant County finished with 227 yards rushing and 48 passing for a total of 275 yards mostly in the second half. Senior running backs Robert Spohn and Hunter Lawson have led the Braves in rushing this year but have been battling injuries lately. Spohn finished with 71 yards on 18 carries while Lawson had just three yards on two carries.
"We had to read our keys and hit them low to bring them down so they couldn't get big, long runs," said Hank Johnson, Highlands senior linebacker. "If you are close to the ball, you try to hit the mesh point when the quarterback is handing the ball off and try to cause a turnover. You have to read your guard and fly to the ball."
Grant County tried to pass the ball on its first possession and just missed a big play on its first pass. The Braves could not manage a first down punting the ball back to Highlands. Greene had a big punt return called back because of a block in the back.
"We thought they were going to come out running based on the film we had on them," said Connor Myers, Highlands junior defensive lineman. "They were running the ball a lot. We had to hold the edge so (the running backs) couldn't get outside."
But that didn't stop Highlands. The Bluebirds moved downfield quickly and scored with 10:18 left in the first quarter when Kendall ran it in from a yard out to put Highlands up 14-0.
Following another quick Grant County three-and-out, Highlands took over at the Grant County 43. Hergott scored from a yard out to put Highlands up 21-0 with 7:46 left in the first quarter.
"That shows how much I know," Siple said. "I thought the strength of the Highlands defense was the interior line. I didn't think we could run the ball so we worked on passing the ball all week. Then we turn around and ran the ball well. I give Robert (Spohn) and our line a lot of credit. We had time to throw and guys were open. We just couldn't connect."
The Bluebirds were not done scoring in the first quarter. Kendall recorded a 15-yard touchdown with 5:48 left in the quarter to put Highlands up 28-0.
The Braves did move the ball into the red zone on their next possession. But Grant County tried a fade route that senior cornerback Austin Beal intercepted and returned 99 yards for a touchdown. However, the ball came back to the Bluebird 1 following a Highlands block-in-the-back call.
It did not take long for the Braves to get the ball back when Zane Burch intercepted the ball and returned it to the Highlands 4. Lawson scored on a 2-yard run on fourth down just four seconds into the second quarter to trim the lead to 28-6.
The Bluebirds responded quickly. Hergott capped off the long drive with a 1-yard plunge with 9:45 left in the half to give Highlands a 35-6 lead.
Highlands then hit that running clock two minutes and 38 seconds later. Hergott hit Conley for a 30-yard score to put the Bluebirds up 42-6.
"We're going to have to get (the passing game) in by the playoffs if we're going to make another deep run, which I think we can," Conley said. "We struggled in the beginning. We probably had over 70 percent completion, which is huge. We're finally clicking."
The Bluebirds saw sophomore Larry Wilson get in on the scoring in the third quarter. He bounced to the left for a 4-yard run with 6:38 left in the quarter to put Highlands up 49-6 after Ben Brach made the extra-point try.
Grant County scored a little more than three minutes later. Spohn broke free for a 17-yard run and ran in the two-point conversion to trim the margin to 49-14.
Highlands went on another drive and Brady Gosney ran down the left sideline for a 23-yard score with 10 seconds left in the third and Jack Schultz hit the PAT. Highlands led 56-14 entering the fourth quarter. Gosney has quarterbacked the Highlands JV team to a 6-2 record and started against Scott County in place of the injured Hergott.
"The competition is way better on varsity than it is on JV," Gosney said. "The freshmen and JV are doing well. We're looking to keep dominating."
Only one touchdown came in the fourth quarter. Spohn scored from a yard out and quarterback Joseph Knipp ran in the two-point conversion with six minutes left in the game. That made the final score of 56-22.
The Bluebirds finish the season at Boone County on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m.