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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Highlands-St. Xavier Preview

Bluebirds face another daunting road task

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior defensive back Bradley Greene (left) brings down Ryle's Bryce Ashley (17) during the game Friday in Union.
Many around town admit another 1-3 start is hard to believe after so many years of unprecedented success.

But the Highlands Bluebirds football team finds itself in this position with two more tough games against Class 6A competition in Louisville St. Xavier (2-1 overall) and Simon Kenton (4-0). The Bluebirds may be overmatched on paper in Friday's game in Louisville starting at 7:30 p.m. But they will not settle for a mentality of just surviving the next two weeks without any more significant injuries before Class 5A, District 5 action begins.

"This group has been good since the winter," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "Their desire hasn't been a problem. Their commitment hasn't been a problem. We have a lot of inexperience and are making some mistakes we're trying to correct. If we keep the effort and get better at what we're doing, I think we'll be alright." 

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The Tigers enter the game off a 51-7 thrashing of Louisville Central. Central lost in the Class 3A state championship to Belfry two years ago, but is struggling at 0-4 on the season.

But to pull the upset against the Tigers, the Bluebirds need to figure some things out quickly. The 3-4 undersized Highlands defense has allowed 936 yards on the ground and 746 through the air for averages of 234 yards rushing and 186.5 passing going against big and quick offensive lines.

"Actually, everybody's kind of feeling the pressure right now," said Carter Burke, Highlands senior linebacker. "We really want to be great. It's all about every single one of us stepping up, not just one or two. But it is one or two being vocal and helping everyone else become (better) leaders on the defense instead of standing around watching."

The Highlands defense needs to figure out ways to penetrate against a big St. Xavier offensive line and slow down senior 5-foot-10-inch, 198-pound running back Sam Taylor and contain senior 6-5, 194-pound quarterback Desmond Ridder, a University of Cincinnati commit. Taylor has rushed for 392 yards on 66 carries and five touchdowns for an average of about six yards per carry.

"It comes down to doing your job," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "As coaches, we have to do our jobs as well. We're obviously not doing a good enough job if our guys are not doing a good enough job. We have to find a different way to motivate and a different way to get our guys to do what they're supposed to do. We'd seen a lot of progress through the first three games. We took a major step back last week with some simple things. It wasn't so much what they did to us. We didn't trust our keys and take care of our responsibilities. As coaches, it's on us now. We have to do a better job so they know what they're supposed to be doing. We have to take two or three steps forward to get where we should be."

Prior to the win over Central, St. Xavier rallied down 28 points to beat Lexington Catholic, 42-28 to open the season before losing 31-10 to defending Class 5A champion Bowling Green. The team suspended Ridder for those two games. But he completed 7-of-8 passes for 83 yards and three touchdowns in addition to running for 109 yards on five carries and two touchdowns in the win over Central.

Ridder spreads the ball out nicely. Senior fullback Mack Blincoe had four catches for 35 yards and two touchdowns against Central and junior 6-2 wide receiver Cameron Garrett had two catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Their offensive line includes junior 6-foot-4-inch, 282-pound Wyatt Smock.

Ridder gave Highlands fits running the read-option last year, which opened up play-action passes in St. Xavier's 37-6 victory in Fort Thomas. Ridder completed 12-of-18 passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns and Taylor ran for 58 yards on 11 carries and a score.

"They definitely took a step up when he came back," Jones said. "They like to pull their guards. They'll run the buck sweep like Scott County does. They like the speed option. They have nice options off everything. We have to play sound football, trust our keys and fly around."

Highlands hopes to have positive plays defensively early and build on them. The Bluebirds have eight fumble recoveries on the season led by three from senior linebacker Dalton Cornett. Senior defensive back Kyle Rust has the team's lone interception.

The Bluebird spread offense struggled against Ryle mostly from shuffling players around on the offensive line because of injuries to junior center Sam Sparks and senior offensive lineman Kyle Finfrock. Finfrock hopes to be back this week, but Sparks expects to still be out with a broken left hand suffered against Scott County. Highlands put senior running back Grant Murray under center in the first half before senior Michael Dunn hiked the ball in the second half.

"One thing we need to improve on is not making stupid mistakes," said Josh Homer, Highlands junior offensive lineman. "It's mainly going as hard as you can. If you do that, it's mainly going to work out in the end. It's about sticking to your key and not trying to do too much. Because if you try to do too much, you're not going to get anything."

Highlands has rushed for 696 yards and passed for 800 this year in the Spread offense. The averages are 174 yards per game rushing the ball and 200 passing. The Bluebirds have done damage when the offensive line has blocked well. But the running game has been contained the last two games.

Murray leads the Highlands rushers with 324 yards on 60 carries and four touchdowns for an average of 5.4 per carry. Senior Jared Pulsfort has 251 yards on 50 carries and five touchdowns for an average of 5.02 per touch.

Highlands quarterback Brady Gosney has completed 62-of-97 passes for 800 yards and five touchdowns to 10 different receivers. Junior Nick Veneman leads the way with 20 catches for 425 yards and four touchdowns with junior Braden Posey hauling in 10 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown.

"It's a process each week," Weinrich said. "We just have to play the game, watch the film and get better. We made some mistakes Friday. But we've already gotten better. We had a great film session (Monday) and great practice (Tuesday). We're figuring some things out. We just have to execute more consistently."

Senior linebackers Braidon Washburn and Jack Daly anchor the 3-4 Tiger defense that has allowed just 185 yards rushing and 491 yards passing. Junior Defensive lineman Andrew Uhls (6-3, 215) blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown against Central.

Against Bowling Green, St. Xavier limited Purple standout running back Jamele Carothers, a Naval Academy appointee, and the other BG running backs to just 21 yards on 18 carries. But Bowling Green quarterback Clark Payne torched the Tigers for 248 yards and three touchdowns completing 24-of-36 passes.

Highlands is 2-5 all-time against St. Xavier including the loss last year. Highlands last beat St. Xavier, 22-17 to open the undefeated 1996 Class 3A state championship run. The other win came in 1972 (10-7).

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