Bluebirds Handle Jaguars for Third Straight Season
The players and coaches have talked all off-season about how determined they were to have a great season this fall.
The efforts and determination showed off well in the season-opener for the Highlands Bluebirds against the Cooper Jaguars in non-district play Friday. For the most part, Highlands controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in a 36-7 win over the Jaguars.
Highlands showed signs of having players go both directions in the preseason. But the Bluebirds still two-platooned for the most part and wore down the Jaguars, who had a number of guys go both directions. Cooper lists 60 players on its roster sophomore through senior compared to 80 for Highlands.
"I think Highlands wore (the Jaguars) down," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We did a great job in special teams. The defense did an awesome job. The offense did what it's supposed to do. That's a testament to what Coach Weinrich does in the off-season - the stuff that he comes up with and what we do every day makes a huge difference as we get into the season."
Both teams had balanced attacks. The Bluebirds continued to run a Spread formation while the Jaguars are moving in that direction. Highlands had 57 plays for 349 yards for an average of just more than six yards per play while Cooper had 206 yards on 63 plays for an average of just under 3.3 per play. Highlands out-gained Cooper, 220-91 rushing the football.
Senior Cooper Schwalbach led Highlands with 18 carries for 109 yards and a 32-yard touchdown on the opening drive for the Bluebirds. Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston ran in the two-point conversion out of the Muddle Huddle formation to put Highlands up 8-0 with 7:39 left in the first quarter. That quick start had been an issue for Highlands last year (see sidebar).
Senior quarterback Grady Cramer gave Highlands balance completing 14-of-23 passes for 121 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Seven different receivers caught passes for the Bluebirds. Senior wide receiver Nate Roberts had a team-high four catches for 20 yards to go with a 65-yard touchdown run and junior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld had three catches for 58 yards and a touchdown. Roberts had one catch between two defenders.
"I'm more impressed by that play than any other play he had (Friday) including the big, long touchdown run. It says a couple things," Deaton said. "One, that he loves his teammates and he's going to make a play. I think it also says that he trusts his quarterback and his other players to put him in position to be able to make a play."
Even when Highlands had to punt, Cramer averaged 54 yards on three punts helping the Bluebirds win the field position game compared to 40-yard averages on seven punts for Cooper. Cramer booted one that rolled a personal-record 77 yards inside the Cooper 5 in the first half.
Defensively, the Highlands 3-5 scheme wanted to contain Cooper sophomore quarterback Jeremiah Lee. Lee tried to run out of tight situations. But the Bluebirds held him to 32 yards rushing on 19 carries for an average of just under 1.7 per carry and a long of 12 yards in the first quarter. Lee completed just 7-of-18 passes for 115 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
Highlands constantly penetrated the backfield and brought Lee down or made him throw a pass from an uncomfortable position. Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn had a sack and tackle for a loss. Junior defensive lineman Zach Lewin had a sack with senior defensive back Bailey Armstrong and senior defensive lineman Ben Sisson recording one tackle for a loss each. Sisson also saw some action at tight end.
"It was very key (Friday). He's a quick little runner and if you let him (go) outside, he's going to do damage so everyone did their part keeping him inside and (in) front (of defenders) and just not letting him go anywhere and do what he wants," said Mason Schwalbach, Highlands junior linebacker. "We're all getting better at (the 3-5 keys and concepts). Everyone is flying around and making plays. You just have to trust what you're doing."
Both teams turned the ball over three times. Senior defensive backs Casey Greene and Armstrong had interceptions for Highlands and Lewin had a fumble recovery. Greene's pick came in the Highland end zone. Cooper senior defensive lineman Connor Bridges had a fumble recovery and interception and senior Dillon Perry had an interception for the Jaguars.
"We challenged the defensive backs to challenge the receivers. They did a good job," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "When you challenge like that, you have to hit the reset button every single play. You can't take a play off because they're going to come at you at some point. I felt like we responded well. We had some guys out there for the first time. We had some formation adjustments they had to make on the run and they responded well. That was just something we focused on this week."
Cooper tried a number of plays up the middle with junior running back Anthony Witschey. He rushed for 65 yards on 21 carries for an average of about 3.1 per carry. His longest run was eight yards.
"Basically with any offense, you have to start inside out defensively and you have to clog those vertical running seams," Weinrich said. "We wanted (Witschey) to bounce it. We were able to get under some of those blocks, get them to bounce the ball and stop their feet from going lateral. We had some great pursuit and great feet in the open field."
Lee tried to pass the ball deep a number of times on posts, fades and throw in some screen passes. Senior Mikey Armour had four catches for 54 yards including an 11-yard touchdown with 5:01 left in the second quarter. Senior Tori Neltner made the point-after-touchdown kick to trim the Highlands lead to 8-7.
Armour's long was 41 yards. Junior Jayden Maynard had two catches for Cooper for 58 yards. Maynard's longest catch came for 48 yards.
"We were doing back shoulder drills all week keeping our feet chopping using our inside shoulder staying ready for inside cutbacks," said Jacob Brass, Highlands junior defensive back. "You just have to stay disciplined with the deep-third (throws). That's how we contained them. The secondary keeps on getting better throughout the week. This game, it was even better. We used what we did in practice and got a W."
Highlands responded with two quick touchdowns to end the first half to go up 22-7. Ahlfeld took an outside pass, broke a tackle and darted 44 yards to the end zone with 3:54 left in the half then Roberts took a run to the right and followed the blockers 65 yards for the touchdown with 30 seconds left in the half. Senior Nick Bowman made both PATs. The offensive line provided nice protection throughout the game.
"We have great backs who make great cuts off us," said Will Salmon, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "It's about moving our feet, shooting our hands then driving the defensive line as far back as we can go. Especially when guys go both ways, (conditioning) helps us a lot. Our offense is as fresh as can be. We really don't get tired much. That showed in this game."
Highlands had a couple chances to add to the lead in the third quarter but did not score. But with 1:06 left in the third quarter, Cooper Schwalbach ran off tackle to the right and fumbled the ball into the end zone as he tried to score from two yards out. But Salmon jumped on the ball for the score. Junior Brennan Haigis' PAT made it 29-7 Bluebirds.
Sophomore Joe Buten scored his first varsity touchdown with 5:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. He scampered around the right side for a 36-yard score. Haigis' second PAT made the final score.
Highlands travels to Campbell County on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m.