Everything came together in overtime in the 27-20 victory over the visiting Campbell County Camels. The Bluebirds scored on their lone overtime possession and stopped the Camels on their possession to win the game. The Highlands defense stopped three Campbell County running plays it had problems slowing down in regulation before senior linebacker Crosley New pressured Camel quarterback Austin Hoeh on a roll-out to the left on 4th-and-Goal from the four forcing a desperate throw into the end zone that landed incomplete.
Campbell County ran a variety of trap, off-tackle and sweep plays out of its spread offense in addition to short sideline routes to the wide receivers. But the Bluebirds will face the Scott County Cardinals and their vaunted traditional Wing-T offense known for speed that produces big plays.
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"When you play with confidence, you play faster," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "The biggest thing against that stuff is to line up correctly because they're number one thing is to outflank you. If you get outflanked, you're in trouble then you look slow because you're chasing them. It's such a deceptive type offense. They don't have a lot of plays, but they have an answer to anything you could throw at them. You just have to try to stay one step ahead of them if possible."
Both teams recorded sound victories to open the season. Highlands handled Cooper, 42-22 on the road and Scott County smashed North Bullitt, 56-19 in Georgetown. Like the Bluebirds, the Cardinals withstood a challenge holding off the two-time Class 6A state runner-up Lexington Lafayette Generals, 31-21 on the road Friday.
The Cardinals have seen three different running backs go for more than 100 yards in the first two games. Senior Brice Fryman has 222 yards rushing on 21 carries and a touchdown averaging about 10.5 yards per carry. Junior fullback Austin Barnett has 162 yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns averaging 8.1 yards a touch and sophomore Bronson Brown owns 123 yards rushing on four attempts and a touchdown averaging 31 yards a touch. Two common Wing-T plays are the dive and sweep.
"With what they do, you have to trust what you're supposed to do and have confidence because they can make you look silly real quick," Weinrich said. "They have so much smoke and mirrors is the way to put it. They have guys going one direction. The ball is coming back the other way. You can't look in the backfield. They have three guys going in different directions and none of them even have the ball. The quarterback could have the ball and throw downfield to the tight end. You didn't even think about him."
The Cardinals have rushed for 643 yards in two games for an average of 321.5 per game. Three-year starting senior quarterback Josh Davis has only had to throw five passes this year. But Davis has completed four of them for 143 yards and two touchdowns. One completion went for 43 yards with 2:43 left in the win at Lafayette to senior tight end Landon Easley. Barnett put the game away with his third touchdown of the game on the next Cardinal play. Easley had both Scott County catches for 80 yards against Lafayette.
"Wing-T is unique in today's day and age," said Jim McKee, Scott County Head Coach. "Most everyone is in the shotgun and the spread offense is the in-vogue terminology that most people use. Our guys have really bought into the our system. We spread the wealth so to speak and feel like we can run the ball in between the tackles (or) on the edge and with misdirection along with the ability to strike in the passing game. Most teams build their defenses to stop a spread offense because that is what they see each week so it gives us an advantage to be a down hill running team most weeks."
The Scott County skill players have enjoyed great protection led by junior three-year starting left offensive tackle Bryan Hudson. The 6-foot-5-inch, 292-pound tackle on both sides of the ball has 13 NCAA Division I offers including the University of Alabama, Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, University of Florida, University of Tennessee and Notre Dame. Defensively, Hudson has three solo tackles and two combined tackles.
Weinrich and McKee agreed the Wing-T is a pretty offense when executed. But the Bluebirds hope to make a pretty site defensively of derailing it like they did in the lone victory over the Cardinals in school history, 60-37 in 2012. Early in that win, Scott County ran a sweep left with Kevo Edwards. But Highlands defensive end Seth Hope blew up the play by breaking off a block and tackling Edwards in the backfield for a loss.
Highlands allowed 239 yards rushing against Campbell County last week. The Bluebirds have allowed averages of 233 rushing and 69 passing this season. It's still an improvement from last year when they allowed about 304 rushing and 76 passing per game. Highlands has outscored opponents, 69-42 on the season.
Highlands did manage to force three turnovers against the Camels and may need more of that to win Thursday in its 3-5 defense. Two stopped drives and another was a game-tying interception by junior Bailey Armstrong. Armstrong and Mason Schwalbach stopped drives with fumble recoveries.
Highlands stopped Campbell County's traps when the defensive linemen like Ben Sisson, Nate Davis and Nick Biltz broke off tackles, filled in the gaps and stopped the Camel running backs. The Bluebirds had success against the sweeps when they strung out the play. Before Armstrong's interception, Campbell County ran Alex Dowds to the left on a sweep, but Biltz caught him from behind for a loss.
Linebackers like Alex Starkey, New, Nick Bowman, Logan Seiple and Jack Delagrange have played a role in forcing opponents into 3rd-and-long situations running to the ball and making plays. That's allowed the defensive backs to make interceptions. Senior Joe Steiden had a school-record four picks against Cooper and senior Harrison Traylor had a pick-six against the Jaguars. The six Highlands interceptions have already doubled the total from last year.
"Most importantly, we have to have a great week of practice," Seiple said. "We have to listen and trust what Coach Weinrich asks us to do this week. On Friday, if he wants to make any quick adjustments, we have to adjust. We have to go down hill and fly around to the ball. If we don't work as a team, it's going to be hard to beat Scott County."
On the other side, the Highlands offense faces an experienced 3-4 Scott County defense that returns eight starters from last year's 11-3 Class 6A squad that lost 48-47 to Lafayette in the state semifinals. Junior Berk Watts leads Scott County with 15 tackles and senior safety Cooper Robb has 11 tackles and an interception. Junior defensive end Zack Coleman has Scott County's lone fumble recovery and sophomore Bronson Brown has the other Cardinal interception.
Highlands has 188 yards rushing and 267 passing for averages of 94 rushing and 133.5 passing. The Bluebird offense has not been as consistent as year's past. But the team has shown signs it can be balanced like the past.
"I'm very impressed with their returning guys," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "They are very good defensively and do a good job so for us, as we said on Friday, when we executed our offense, it was pretty productive. We have to make sure we know what we're doing with our assignments and get off to a good start early."
Junior running back Cooper Schwalbach has emerged to rush for a total of 179 yards on 47 carries and six touchdowns for an average of just under four yards per carry. He had 150 yards rushing against Cooper, but Campbell County focused on him and limited him to 29 yards rushing. Deaton said Scott County may do the same thing.
Highlands senior quarterback Carl Schoellman guided the spread offense down the field several times against Campbell County. He has completed 28-of-47 passes for 267 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
"I think a lot of teams focus on making sure a team can't run first," Deaton said. "If you're able to do that, the other team can't control the clock and score points methodically. We just happen to have a really good running back to key on."
Highlands has had nice protection from the offensive line. The Bluebirds have seen nine players catch passes. Seniors Jared Wogan, Griffin Huber and Nick Veneman lead Highlands with six catches each going for 92, 56 and 32 yards respectively. Wogan had the team's lone touchdown reception against Cooper. The Bluebirds had success throwing the short routes and into the flats against Campbell County.
"Nick Veneman is a great player as everyone knows," said Austin King, Highlands junior wide receiver. "He's obviously opened up a lot of things for us because he's a double-coverage kind of guy. He draws attention. Many of us are getting our first significant varsity reps this year so there's plenty of room for growth. As the season progresses, our consistency level should increase each week and there's no doubt that the effort and focus is there day in and day out. Throughout the spring and summer, we battled through a lot of adversity including injuries and position changes so I just think it's a matter of time before we all settle into our roles. Also, (I give) a huge shout-out to the defense for carrying us despite the slow starts."
McKee has not forgotten how Veneman torched the Cardinal defense in one-on-one coverage last year with the deep post routes. Veneman had nine receptions for 224 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-33 Cardinal win in Fort Thomas last year.
"(Veneman) is a really good player," McKee said. "The thing when you play Highlands (is) all of their players are well-drilled and talented and the coaching staff is good. They work hard to take advantage of what the defense is giving them rather than force feed a certain player or play concept. It looks like their (offensive line) is also good this year. Those guys on film look like they come off the ball hard and (Cooper Schwalbach) runs with great passion."
A win for Highlands would be the first-ever win over the Cardinals in Georgetown. Prior to 2012, Highlands and Scott County met just once back in 1979 when Bill Herrmann was the head coach. The Cardinals won that meeting, 20-0.