|Highlands to face huge Woodford County lines|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior linebacker Jared Dougherty (left) closes in for a tackle in Friday's 32-6 win at Boone County.|
The Highlands Bluebirds enter the playoffs with the latter record playing their best football and hope to continue that great direction against the Woodford County Yellow Jackets (3-7) on Friday. Game time is 7:30 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
"In the playoffs, any team you play has the capability of beating you and these guys are no exception," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They've shown a lot of things they do well. We're really going to have to make sure we're ready for them."
Highlands has been to eight consecutive state championship games and won seven of them. The only time since 2006 that the Bluebirds did not win the state championship came in 2013 when the Collins Titans beat them 37-34 on a touchdown pass with seven seconds to go in the 4A title game. But the Bluebirds rebounded to win their state-record 23rd crown last year, 49-42 over Owensboro.
The Bluebirds have won four in a row entering the playoffs. On the other side, the visitors from Versailles come to town on a five-game losing streak as the fourth seed out of Class 5A, District 6. Under the guidance of first-year head coach Dennis Johnson, the 1997 Kentucky Mr. Football winner and former defensive lineman at the University of Kentucky and Harrodsburg, Woodford County started the season 3-2 before going on the losing streak, which included an 0-3 mark in district action.
"The group has been hard-working," Johnson said. "We have made some progress, but it has not shown in the wins and losses. We still have a long way to go in turning around the mentality and culture of our program. We have a nice young group of kids that will help grow our program."
Weinrich said turnovers have hurt the Yellow Jackets. But teams tend not to do that against Highlands in the playoffs.
The Highlands spread offense showed how effective the passing game can be in the 32-6 win over Boone County to end the regular season. Bluebird senior quarterback Austin Hergott completed 14-of-23 passes for 210 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Hergott passed the 1,000-yard mark on the season in the win. He has completed 106-of-194 passes for 1,191 yards, 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Behind an offensive line led by seniors Evan Richardson and Bo Hebel, Highlands averages 157.3 yards rushing the ball and 129.2 passing. Highlands senior Nick Kendall has led the way all season rushing and receiving the ball. Kendall has 757 yards rushing on 147 carries and 10 touchdowns to go with 23 catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns.
"Highlands has great balance, which is scary for most defenses," Johnson said. "We must first try and stop the run. We can't give them a two-way go. They have a great quarterback who does a great job at leading their offense."
But other receivers stepped forward in the victory. Senior TJ Sipple is second on the team with 21 receptions for 279 yards and a touchdown. Junior Trent Buchert and sophomore Nick Veneman had touchdown catches against Boone County. Sophomore Griffin Huber also had some nice catches.
"We've always had this confidence with the passing game," Huber said. "It just showed last game more than other games. Practice is huge. We've been doing it since the summer. It's starting to pay off."
The Bluebirds tend to make opponents come out of their comfort zones by jumping out to huge leads. That is what happened against Boone County when Highlands built a nice lead in the second half.
"You always try to make a team beat you left-handed," Weinrich said. "It took us a while to get going. They're going to try to do the same thing to us."
Both Highlands and Woodford County run 3-4 defenses. Teams have rushed for about 194 yards and passed for 116 per game against the Yellow Jackets.
The Yellow Jackets have seven interceptions on the season. Junior defensive back Dwayne Depp has three picks and junior defensive back Malik Richards have two. Richards returned one of them 99 yards for a touchdown.
The Bluebird 3-4 defense has continued to improve throughout the season. Teams have rushed for an average of 217.4 yards per game and passed for 142.4.
Highlands will face a Yellow Jacket offense that tries to run hard between the tackles behind three NCAA Division I recruits in I-formation and Spread sets. Those three linemen are University of Kentucky commit Drake Jackson (6-feet-2-inches, 290 pounds), Western Kentucky University commit Seth Joest (6-3, 295) and Saige Young (6-4, 320). Young has offers from Ball State University (Indiana) and Troy University (Alabama).
"You go into the game expecting them to be better than most teams, but you play the game as though it's any other game," said Luke Lindeman, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "Obviously, I don't have the size (Jackson) does. My key to success is going to be my speed. I can't out-man him."
Senior Matt Stratton recently returned from a knee injury to help Woodford County on both lines. Aside from injuries, Johnson said the Yellow Jackets have had problems finishing drives.
Woodford County has rushed for 2,372 yards on the season and passed for 1,161. Senior DeVontre Winkfield leads the Yellow Jackets with 736 yards rushing on 108 carries and 11 touchdowns with senior Emir Bernabe going for 688 yards on 121 rushes and six touchdowns.
"Lining up right is half the battle," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "(The Woodford County offensive linemen) get after it. They work really hard. They try to weed you out. If they're blocking down on you, they try to weed you across the field. The key is to stay low, move the feet and not get washed. They can wash you out or weed you out and try to create space. If we line up right and play fast, we should be fine. They're going to be patient enough to get some first downs."
Senior quarterback Trey Thurman has given Woodford County some balance completing 80-of-162 passes for 1,146 yards and eight touchdowns to go with six interceptions. Richards leads Woodford County with 18 catches for 335 yards and two touchdowns with Winkfield going for 21 catches for 199 yards and two touchdowns.
Highlands should see senior defensive lineman Tyler Robinson back this week after he missed the Boone County game. Robinson has a team-high 8.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks. Fellow senior defensive lineman Luke Lindeman has 5.5 sacks on the year.
The Bluebirds have intercepted six passes on the season and recovered nine fumbles defensively. Senior Austin Beal and junior Bradley Greene have two interceptions on the season with Trey Bowden, Sam Taylor and Drew Bravard recovering two fumbles each.
Greene has also been a force on special teams. He has 12 punt returns for 220 yards and 11 kickoff returns for 298 yards and a touchdown.
Highlands has the huge advantage of playing in the comfort of David Cecil Memorial Stadium where it has won 27 consecutive playoff games dating back to a 17-0 loss to Lexington Catholic on Nov. 18, 2005 in the region title game. The Bluebirds could have four home playoff games if they keep winning like they have in recent year.
"Highlands has a beautiful facility, but it's not one and done for us," Johnson said. "We have to come in with confidence and do what we have been coached to do. We have told our kids that the place will be packed and we have to just focus and play."
Highlands and Woodford County have met just one other time in school history back in 2010. The Bluebirds handled the Yellow Jackets, 70-8 in the first round of the playoffs that year on their way to their fourth straight Class 5A state championship.
Highlands is seeking its 24th straight first-round playoff win. The last time the Bluebirds lost in the first round of the playoffs came in 1991 in a 20-14 loss to Montgomery County.