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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Highlands-Dixie Heights Game Story

Bluebirds Record Shutout at Great Time

PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, Highlands senior linebacker Logan Sparks (22) creeps near the line of scrimmage against Dixie Heights on Friday. Sparks returned after several games out.
For all the talk about not making plays to finish games at the end, the Blue and White knew of a better solution to all that.

That's avoiding those situations altogether.

The Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-4 overall) made sure of that early and often in its crucial match-up with the Dixie Heights Colonels (3-5) posting a convincing 47-0 victory reminiscent of past great Bluebird teams. The loss snaps a four-game losing streak and matches the victory total of last year and puts the Bluebirds in great position to play host to a first-round playoff game (see sidebar).

"It felt good. We've had two good weeks of practice. We got healthy, got refreshed," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We got better. It was nice to put things together. You're never going to be satisfied. The film is still going to show a lot of mistakes we got to clean up in a hurry."

Dixie Heights has been a run-oriented pound and ground team under Head Coach Dave Brossart. The Colonels like to go on long and sustained drives out of their multiple-look offense. But the Bluebirds jumped out to an early 11-0 lead and made sure that didn't happen.

Highlands put up 376 yards of total offense on 50 plays for an average of 7.5 yards per play with a balance of 178 rushing and 198 passing to go with 15 first downs. Dixie Heights had just 215 yards on 42 plays for an average of just more than five per play. The Colonels had 173 yards rushing and 42 passing.

Nearly half of the Dixie Heights plays revolved around senior running back Brandon Barker. Barker finished with 155 yards rushing on 34 carries for an average of nearly 4.5 yards per attempt. That yardage amounted to about 72 percent of the Colonel offense. He came into the game leading the Colonels with 459 yards on 87 carries and two touchdowns for an average of 5.3 per carry.

Barker's longest run was 18 yards. The Bluebirds stopped Barker at or behind the line of scrimmage at times against a Dixie Heights offensive line that has six players standing 6-foot-1-inch and taller and between 255 and 275 pounds. But even when he broke past the line of scrimmage on a counter, off-tackle or other play, the Highlands linebackers and defensive backs swarmed to him quickly to prevent him from breaking off bigger plays.

"We knew that's how they operate as a team," Weinrich said. "They want to get the ball to their offense, shorten the game and control the ball. They do a great job of it. Their offensive line is their strength. We knew we had to get some few-yard gains, put them behind the sticks and give us a chance. We had some guys break free and make a couple plays when we needed them."

Turnovers played a big part in the win as the Colonels had four and the Bluebirds had none. Highlands senior defensive back Harrison Traylor, sophomore linebacker Brycen Huddleston and senior defensive lineman Nick Biltz recorded their first fumble recoveries of the year. Biltz picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. But a block-in-the-back penalty wiped out the touchdown.

"They ran (isolation plays with Barker) so many times I can't even count it," Biltz said. "It was crazy. The shutout was nice."

Traylor also picked off his third pass of the season out of the 3-5 defense. Traylor is second on the team in interceptions behind senior Joe Steiden's four. Traylor is also tied with junior defensive back Bailey Armstrong with four turnovers altogether. Armstrong has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the season.

Huddleston made his season debut after an injury kept him out the first six games. Huddleston also had a nine-yard sack of Dixie Heights sophomore quarterback Jeremy Adams.

"It was (about) doing your job and if you get (to the opponent with the ball), you get there," Huddleston said. "You just get excited, go around and have fun, play fast. The defensive linemen and linebackers talked before the game. We had to run downfield. If we made a mistake, we had to do it 110 percent. Then if we're there, we have to make the tackle."

Highlands took the ball to start the game and scored on its first possession for the first time this year. Bluebird senior quarterback Carl Schoellman hit senior wide receiver Nick Veneman on a go route down the right sideline for a 40-yard touchdown pass just two minutes, 16 seconds into the game and Grady Cramer hit junior Austin King in the right part of the end zone out of the swinging gate look for the two-point conversion to put the Bluebirds up 8-0.

"It's something we've been talking about each week that we want to do," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Each week, we try to focus on improving on the first series and in the first quarter and in the first half. We've slowly done that all year. (On Friday) it was great to see guys visualize what they wanted to do, execute what they were visualizing, and make it happen."

The Colonels fumbled on their first play from scrimmage and Traylor recovered it at the Dixie Heights 26. Highlands junior Nick Bowman hit a 22-yard field goal with 7:55 left to give the Bluebirds an 11-0 advantage.

Veneman finished with five catches for 153 yards and four touchdowns averaging nearly 30.5 yards per catch. The Bluebirds took advantage of one-on-one match-ups with him in the secondary as Dixie Heights played a 3-4 defense look geared to stop the Bluebird running game like teams have done all season.

Highlands senior Larry Wilson and junior Cooper Schwalbach still broke off a few long runs playing together for the first time since the first couple minutes of the season-opening 42-22 win at Cooper. Schwalbach had 76 yards rushing on 11 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under seven yards per carry and Wilson had 68 yards on 10 carries for around the same average per carry.

"It's great to have Larry and I in the backfield together," Schwalbach said. "This is the first (whole) game that Larry and I have been able to play (together) and it's awesome. You have to be patient as a runner. Once you see the hole, you hit it as hard as you can and get what you can get."

Schoellman completed 5-of-13 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns and Cramer completed 3-of-4 passes for 45 yards and two touchdowns including a 28-yard touchdown pass to junior Nate Roberts with 1:20 left in the game. Cramer also had an eight-yard reception.

With 2:50 left in the first quarter, Veneman again burned Dixie Heights sophomore defensive back Dylan Sears for a 66-yard touchdown pass. Cramer then scored on a two-point conversion run to make it 19-0 Bluebirds.

"We really felt like we had a couple of good match-ups against their secondary," Deaton said. "We tried to take advantage of that and luckily, we were able to connect on quite a few."

Schoellman set up another Veneman touchdown in the second quarter with a 27-yard run. Cramer then hit Veneman over the middle to put Highlands up 26-0 with 8:30 left in the half.

Veneman's fourth touchdown catch came with 8:50 left in the third. It also came on the right side to put Highlands up 33-0.

The Bluebirds hit the running clock in the fourth quarter. Schwalbach broke free for a 15-yard touchdown before Roberts completed the scoring on a nice move.

One area of improvement for the Bluebird offense is third-down conversions. Highlands converted just 2-of-8 on those opportunities for 25 percent and 3-of-4 on fourth down for 75 percent against Dixie Heights. On the other side, the Colonels converted just 4-of-13 for 31 percent on third down and 2-of-5 for 40 percent on fourth down.

Highlands travels to Park Hills on Friday for the annual battle with the undefeated Covington Catholic Colonels (7-0). Game time is 7 p.m.

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