Bluebirds Make Halftime Lead Stand
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Larry Wilson celebrates in the first quarter after scoring his first touchdown of the season. Highlands beat Oldham County, 34-7 to advance in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.|
But the game also did not turn out to be as close as some anticipated. The Highlands Bluebirds football team (6-5 overall) just came out firing on all cylinders, built a 34-0 advantage and made the 34-7 halftime score stand to the end in its Class 5A first-round playoff win over the Oldham County Colonels from District 5.
The win sets up a second-round battle at the District 5 champion South Oldham Dragons (9-1) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Dragons mysteriously received the lone first-round bye of any team in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's top five classes (see notebook for more details).
Highlands has hit the running clock just once this year. It came in its lone shut-out of the season in a 47-0 win over Dixie Heights on Oct. 6 in Fort Thomas.
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"You have no clue going into a game if something like (a running clock) is possible," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We felt like we had control of the game. I just have to start doing a better job at some point figuring out how to get our guys to play for four quarters. I keep saying every week, 'stupid mistakes.' Well, that's all my fault and it continues to be my fault. I have to figure out how to put them in better positions whether it's in practice or games so they don't have to worry about that and let those guys play. I just have to get out of their way."
Highlands made the most of the turnovers for the third straight week. The Bluebirds picked off two passes and recovered a fumble scoring 21 points off the turnovers while Oldham County did not score any points off its interception in the second half.
Oldham County wound up with more overall yards, 321-294. But Highlands ran just 50 plays averaging just under six per play and the Colonels ran 86 averaging just under 3.7 per play.
Both teams showed balance. The Bluebirds rushed for 144 yards and passed for 150 and the Colonels rushed for 150 and passed for 171. Highlands junior Grady Cramer made his first start at quarterback in place of injured senior Carl Schoellman. Cramer completed 9-of-17 passes for those yards and threw two touchdowns and an interception.
Cramer had been directing the offense when the Bluebirds go to their Muddle Huddle offense mostly on two-point conversions. Muddle Huddle formations often have seven guys off to one side and maybe one person near the center at the line of scrimmage.
"He did a great job," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "He played with a lot of confidence. The other guys had a lot of confidence in him. I think with the way the other guys play so hard and so well, it gave Grady confidence, too so it was really a mutual thing. Our offensive line did a great job and he really did a lot of stuff that we asked him to do."
The Colonels could not keep up with senior wide receiver Nick Veneman. Veneman had five catches for 83 yards and two touchdown. Veneman also returned the second-half kickoff 44 yards into Oldham County territory. The Highlands offensive line gave Cramer plenty of time to make plays.
"We were real excited," said Keaton Huddleston, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "We were out there to dominate and I felt like we kine of did that. We have good coaches who teach us what we need to do to win the game. That includes blocking until the whistle. We go through a bunch of stuff during practice for it and it turns out well for us in the game."
The Bluebirds saw junior Cooper Schwalbach go for 106 yards on 12 carries for an average of just under nine per play. But senior Larry Wilson scored his first touchdown this year going for 57 yards on eight carries for an average of just more than seven per play.
"It was about time," Wilson said of his first touchdown this year. "Momentum helps a ton along with staying positive on the sidelines. Cheering people on really gets everyone hyped up and we play a lot better."
Oldham County junior Lucas Jones had 124 yards rushing on 20 carries and a touchdown averaging 6.2 per touch. Colonel quarterback Erix Edwards completed 16-of-30 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown. Senior wide receiver Zach Young had 11 catches for 112 yards.
Highlands saw senior defensive backs Harrison Traylor and Joe Steiden return to the starting line-up. Junior Bailey Armstrong saw action later in the game.
Steiden made an immediate impact. Oldham County ate six minutes off the clock to start the game. But Highlands sophomore linebacker Brycen Huddleston sacked Edwards. After just missing a touchdown reception on the next play, Edwards overshot his receiver and Steiden recorded his fifth interception of the season.
Highlands moved the ball down the field and scored when Cramer hit Veneman on the right side. Veneman made a few moves and scored from 21 yards out and Cramer scored on the two-point conversion to put the Bluebirds up 8-0 with 3:07 left in the first quarter.
Steiden then took the ball away from the Oldham County kick returner to set the Bluebirds up with good field position for his first fumble recovery this year. Wilson broke free for a 12-yard touchdown to put Highlands up 14-0 with 2:05 left in the first quarter.
Tensions arose after the touchdown. Oldham County senior defensive back Treyton Pervis received an ejection for taking a shot at a Highlands player.
"We talked about the environment was going to be different," said Michael Fox, Oldham County Head Coach. "We saw them in 7-on-7 over the summer. We thought they were a little chippy. We talked all week how we can't respond. I'm disappointed we responded to some things. It's natural. Kids feel they were getting shoved late or things like that. We have to be bigger than that. That's part of being mentally tough."
The Highlands defense held its ground despite giving up some yards. Huddleston had two sacks and senior defensive lineman Nick Biltz had another one. Senior defensive lineman Nate Davis and sophomore Zach Lewin also had tackles for a loss.
Highlands has moved some players around to compensate for injuries in its 3-5 scheme. Highlands junior Gavin Downard made a position change during the season.
"I have lot of faith in the coaching staff. I played linebacker for most of the season and all off-season and now I'm playing defensive line," Downard said. "It's all working out when we're winning games. They do a good job of putting together game plans that fit our abilities."
Highlands extended the lead to 20-0 with 7:53 left in the second. Veneman burned two Oldham County to the right post for a 37-yard touchdown.
"There are some times when we're going to be out-athleted and we were out-athleted in some spots (Friday) so we knew they had some mismatches on us," Fox said. "They're a good football team. When we settled down and played our football game, I think we showed more of Oldham County football was about this year and what we can be in the future."
That's when Bluebird junior linebacker Alex Starkey came through. The Colonels inserted sophomore Parker Caudill in at quarterback. He faked the hand-off right then throw back to his left. But Starkey picked it off for his first interception this year and went 44 yards for the touchdown to put Highlands up 27-0.
That marked Starkey's second defensive touchdown in two weeks. Starkey also has a team-high three interceptions on the season.
"We watched film on them all week. We knew what their key plays were," Starkey said. "We just did a good job reading our keys and reacting."
A Brycen Huddleston 55-yard punt return with 2:45 left in the half gave Highlands a 34-0 lead. That marked his second punt return for a touchdown in two weeks.
"They were out there a long time, especially in the first half with the interception for a touchdown and the punt return for a touchdown," Weinrich said. "The good of it is we scored. The bad of it is we kept our defense on the field. But the guys responded and played hard. The second half was the same way. They were out there a lot and we kept them out of the end zone, which is the ultimate goal."
Oldham County put together a scoring drive. Jones scored from two yards out with two seconds left to get the Colonels on the board.
Neither team scored in the second half. Highlands drove deep into Colonel territory a couple times in the third quarter. But the Bluebirds messed up when two snaps went over Cramer's head into the backfield forcing the Bluebirds to take a huge loss. That left people wondering what could happen if the Bluebirds put together four quarters like the first two.
"It'd be great. We've been moving the ball all year," Deaton said. "We've really been forcing teams to cover the width and depth of the field. If we can keep doing that without any types of penalties or mistakes, we're going to be in good shape as we go through the playoffs."
Highlands converted on 4-of-8 third-down tries for 50 percent and did not convert its lone fourth-down try. Oldham County converted on 4-of-14 on third down for 29 percent and both fourth-down tries.
Highlands wants to clean up the penalties before next week. Both teams had nine. The Bluebirds had 99 yards in penalties to 60 for Oldham County.
Link to Box Score: