|Bluebirds Face Tough Test in Independence|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands sophomore Zach Lewin (41) and senior Joe Steiden (27) pursue Lexington Catholic junior wide receiver Nathan Schnurr (1) in the game Friday.|
That hit by the Mainstream Moguls in 2013 describes a huge reason for the success of the Highlands Bluebirds football team throughout its great history. The Bluebirds (2-3 overall) have consistently made plays when the game is on the line in a number of different ways.
This year's squad made a number of them in the overtime 27-20 win over Campbell County to lift the Bluebirds to one more win than the 1-4 starts of the previous two years entering the game against Simon Kenton. One example is the offensive line creating a hole on the left side of the line for junior running back Cooper Schwalbach to score the game-winning three-yard touchdown. Then on defense, the likes of defensive linemen Nick Biltz, Ben Sisson and defensive back Harrison Traylor stopping the Camels on the trap and sweep plays that Campbell County had success on throughout the game before junior linebacker Crosley New pressured Camel quarterback Austin Hoeh into throwing the ball incomplete on 4th-and-Goal from the Highlands 4 to end the game.
Unfortunately for the Bluebirds in this three-game losing streak, more of those plays have not been happening. Last week, the Lexington Catholic Knights (3-2) stunned the Bluebirds with two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the game to leave with a 21-18 victory. Highlands knows it will need plenty of those plays Friday when it travels to Independence for the 7 p.m. game Friday against the undefeated Pioneers (5-0).
"We just need guys to make plays," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We need to do the good stuff. We need to do the every down stuff, but we also need to make that big, key stop, big, key interception. I feel like we're getting close. We're just running out of time."
Teams are averaging about 317 yards per game rushing against the Bluebirds in their 3-5 defense and just less than 113 passing. The overall average is down about 50 yards per game from last year's 3-8 squad, but the rushing average is up about 13 yards. Teams have outscored the Bluebirds, 183-134.
Highlands has picked off seven passes this year and recovered five fumbles so the defense has been making more plays than last year. Highlands senior Joe Steiden still leads the team with four interceptions after his school record-setting day against Cooper. Senior Harrison Traylor and junior Bailey Armstrong both have two interceptions and a fumble recovery on the year.
The Bluebirds face a balanced Pioneer Spread offense that averages 215.6 yards per game rushing and 205.2 passing. Simon Kenton senior quarterback Matt Shearer is a dual-threat having completed 63-of-95 passes for 983 yards, 17 touchdowns and a remarkable no interceptions. Shearer is also second on the team with 243 yards on 57 carries and five touchdowns averaging just more than four yards per carry. Weinrich said Shearer can throw the short, medium and deep routes meaning the Bluebirds will have to defend the entire field.
The Pioneer offensive line has again done a nice job blocking. Pioneer sophomore running back Austin Hammack has emerged to lead Simon Kenton with 481 yards rushing on 55 carries and five touchdowns averaging just under nine yards per touch.
"We mostly have to keep trusting our keys," said Korbyn Poole, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "Last week, we actually played pretty well defensively. We flew around and hit our gaps. We didn't go out of our gaps. But there were times when you could see us peeking into a different gap that would hurt us rather than everyone being in their own gap where the running back or quarterback might be running the ball."
Simon Kenton has seen seven different players carry the ball and 14 different players catch passes including three in double-digits. Senior Sam Murray leads the way with 16 catches for 215 yards and five touchdowns and senior Fisher Hayden has 15 catches for 309 yards and six touchdowns. Senior Calvin Rump is next with 11 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown.
"They do a great job of taking what's there. I think that's their key. They don't force things," Weinrich said. "They have a lot of skilled players. They can catch the ball. They run great routes. Their quarterback is about as accurate of a high school quarterback that I've seen. He puts the ball where it needs to be. They have a great running back. He runs hard, is fast and gets out into the open field so you have to trust what you're supposed to do. You can't try to do everything. If they have some success with one thing and that's not what you're responsible for, you can't now try to fix that problem by now trying not to do what you're supposed to do because they're going to take advantage of that the next play. It's definitely a challenge defensively."
On the other side, Highlands is averaging 88.4 yards rushing and 231.4 yards per game passing in its Spread offense. The Bluebirds like to average 3.5 yards per play while the defense likes to hold opponents under that. Penalties push that average up such as between six and seven yards after a 10-yard holding call at the line of scrimmage to pick up the first down.
"We were breaking it down in the films (Saturday) morning. It just seems like every drive we don't have success, there's one play that's keeping us from doing so," said Carl Schoellman, Highlands senior quarterback. "We'll have a penalty or someone will do the wrong assignment. We think if we can just fix that one play every drive, we're going to be golden because you see the product when we put everything together. We're marching right down the field. But if something happens, we have to play behind a down and it makes it tougher. But if we can keep ahead of ourselves and everyone can do their job, we're really a pretty strong offense."
Highlands saw Schwalbach come back last week and he scored a touchdown, but senior Larry Wilson was not able to play. Schwalbach leads the Bluebirds with 308 yards rushing on 78 carries and eight touchdowns averaging just under four yards per carry.
"Our line is doing a great in pass protection. We're working hard to get the run game going. It's just been tough so far this year," Schoellman said. "There's a big emphasis on the push. We have to get through the D-line onto the (line)backers. I think we're going to bust a few. We're very close. Sometimes we're missing blocks that we need to hit. We need to go inside on some teams and outside on some other teams. Once we figure that out, we're going to get it I think."
Highlands senior wide receivers Nick Veneman and Jared Wogan continue to lead the Bluebirds in receptions. Veneman has 25 catches for 343 yards and three touchdowns with Wogan hauling in 23 for 302 and three scores. Highlands Offensive Coordinator Zach Deaton said he's been pleased with the passing game. He said the Bluebirds need to do better converting on third and fourth down and scoring in the end zone. Highlands converted 2-of-10 on third down for 20 percent against Lexington Catholic and one of three on fourth down for 33 percent. But Deaton said Highlands has done better getting first downs early in the game and flipping field position in the last three games.
"We get an opportunity each week to see what our problem is and fix it and I feel like we're starting to do that," Deaton said. "I think we're getting better of everybody understanding their important their one role and assignment is because if that one person doesn't do what they're supposed to do, it can put us in a situation where we've made a mistake and now we have to have another play that makes up twice the amount of ground that we needed to the first time. If the same guy is making the same mistakes at this point, then they can't play. We have to find someone else who can do what they're supposed to do in those jobs and we're starting to do that."
Teams are averaging 161.2 yards rushing against Simon Kenton and 74 passing. The Pioneers have eight new starters in their 3-4 defense. Junior linebacker Bryson Pernell leads Simon Kenton with 35 tackles and a fumble recovery. Like the Highlands coaches and players have said numerous times throughout the years, Simon Kenton Head Coach Jeff Marksberry said it's important for every player to do his job on both sides of the ball in order for a team to succeed.
"They stay stay pretty much fundamental and true," Deaton said. "Last week, Lexington Catholic opened out in a four-man front instead of a three-man front and that was a little bit of a change and they stayed in it really almost the whole game. I havent's seen anything where Simon Kenton hasn't been in their traditonal 3-4 either last year when we played them or this year."
Marksberry, a former Covington Holmes player in the 1980s, has guided the Pioneers to the region championship game the past five seasons with a region crown in 2015. The Pioneers beat the Bluebirds, 42-3 in Independence two years ago and won the shoot-out, 77-53 in Fort Thomas last year. But even though Simon Kenton has been rolling and Highlands has had its issues, Marksberry does not want the Pioneers to get caught off-guard.
"We have great respect for our opponents," Marksberry said. "We know at any time they can click and get things rolling. We know we need to bring our best effort, performance and energy each week."
The series resumed two years ago after the teams had not met since 1998. Highlands still leads the all-time series, 25-3.