|Bluebirds Still Seeking First Win in Weeks Two Through Five Since 2014|
|PHOTO: Allen Ramsey, DWCPhoto.com. Highlands senior Nate Roberts makes a move in the game against Scott County on Friday.|
Highlands again knew those three teams in the Scott County Cardinals, Ryle Raiders and Simon Kenton Pioneers would be on the schedule in the same weeks two through five after the Bluebirds faced Cooper in Week 0 and Campbell County in Week One. The Bluebirds (2-1 overall) could not stop the Scott County Cardinals from posting a fourth win in four years in a lightning-shortened 28-7 loss at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday. But they have a chance to end the losing streak against the Raiders (1-2) on Friday in Union. Game time is 7 p.m.
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"All of the seniors and leaders try to go out of our way to include all the sophomores and everybody being vocal leaders and working hard every day," said Ben Sisson, Highlands senior defensive end. "We set a good example for everyone so they can follow that example and have a really good team bond trying to make it so we're all like brothers."
While Highlands lost for the first time Friday, Ryle won for the first time beating the rival Boone County Rebels (0-2), 41-13 in a game completed Saturday because of the lightning Friday. The Raiders opened with losses to two 3-0 teams in defending Class 5A state champion Covington Catholic (40-7) in Union before going on the road and losing 50-34 to Lexington Catholic.
Junior quarterback Keegan Stanken made an impressive debut in the win at Boone County running Ryle's Spread offense. Stanken completed 14-of-20 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns to seven different receivers. Junior running back Elijah Cusick led the way with four catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. Stanken has completed 18-of-24 passes for 454 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in two games.
"One thing about Ryle's offense is they've always got a really good plan and they do a great job of exploiting any place they can," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "You really have to know yourself pretty well going into those games. You have to try to put yourself in their shoes and see what they're going to be thinking as well. They have some guys they can get the ball to that can make some big plays."
Junior Kyle England again did his thing for the Raiders rushing for 115 yards on 11 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under 10.5 per carry. England has rushed for 308 yards and two touchdowns on 37 touches for an average of about 8.3 per carry. The Ryle offensive line led by senior 6-foot-3-inch, 275 pound Jake Gideon has paved the way for averages of 155 rushing and just more than 238 passing in three games.
Stanken has a number of solid skill players to distribute the ball. Cusick and senior wide receiver Brandon Soden both have six and four catches for a team-high 164 yards each. Soden has two touchdowns and Cusick one receiving. But senior wide receiver Max Inabnit leads the Raiders with nine catches for 73 yards and a touchdown. Senior wide receiver Vince Rankin has eight catches for 109 yards and a touchdown and senior tight end Stefan Clarkson has six for 103 yards.
"That's what so many offenses are doing now is try to get the ball to the guy out in space that can do something with it and force the defense to have to make those open-field plays, which is difficult," Weinrich said. "So what you have to try to do is disrupt the rhythm of how they're trying to do that. That first guy has to have great technique and either get him to the ground or make him hesitate so the rest of the guys can get there to help."
The Highlands 3-5 defense knows it will be challenged. The Bluebirds have allowed averages of about 123 ruhing and just under 111 passing. The secondary has done a good job challenging passes this season recording five interceptions. Senior defensive back Casey Greene leads Highlands with two interceptions this year.
"That was a key this off-season was getting them to the point to where they feel comfortable just taking a guy, locking him down and staying with him," Weinrich said. "We've gotten pretty good at it. We had a great JV game Saturday. We've had a lot of young (defensive backs) really get better. (Monday) was by far the best practice we've had all season. The reason is there's just so much competition now particularly at DB. There are a lot of guys doing it and making plays, having confidence in themselves. That does go a long way."
The Highlands defensive linemen and linebackers did well holding their ground in the first two games and even made some big plays against Scott County. It's just that after a four-yard loss, Scott County would go for a 15-yard run on the next play. But the Bluebirds do have four fumble recoveries this year and two sacks. Senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin has a one of each.
On the other side, the Highlands Spread offense hopes to take another step forward this week. Highlands is averaging just under 121 yards per game rushing the ball, but only 111 passing it. After the Scott County loss, Highlands Offensive Coordinator Zach Deaton said the Bluebirds need to do better catching the ball under pressure.
"We're always emphasizing to our receivers that if the ball is close to you, get your hand on it and it should be caught," Deaton said. "So we try to put them in as many situations in practice in which we replicate that. We go against our defense quite a bit in one-on-one's. We do quite a bit of 7-on-7s. We've got some pretty good guys in our secondary on our defense. We're trying to get a rhytm and get on the same page with our receivers and quarterback. Just doing it every day in practice will help us get there."
Highlands senior quarterback Grady Cramer has completed 33-of-58 passes for five touchdowns and three interceptions. The Highlands offensive line led by seniors Trent Johnson and Will Salmon protected better last week. Senior Austin King leads the way with 10 catches for 111 yards.
"It's all timing. Grady is probably one of the best quarterbacks I've seen come out of Highlands the past couple years. Grady's really developed great timing," said Eddie Etter, Highlands senior wide receiver. "He's worked with all of our wide receivers one-on-one. He's worked with all of us pretty well. He knows our speed. He's knows how well we run the routes. We have such a good rhythm down that he knows exactly where to release it and where we're going to be."
Defensively, Ryle has been vulnerable to the pass this year. Teams have passed for an average of 255 yards per game passing the ball and 155 running the ball.
Senior defensive back Dylan Green and senior linebacker Jackson Saladin lead the Raiders with 24 tackles each. Junior defensive end Tyson Keller leads Ryle with three sacks with junior linebacker Dillon Talmon and junior defensive lineman Trey Shelton recovering two fumbles each. Junior defensive back Morgan Rabe returned the only Raider interception 31 yards for a touchdown against LexCath. Ryle runs a mix of the 4-4 and 4-2 defenses similar to what Campbell County runs.
"It's kind of been nice this week to compare something in a game that we've already had a decent amount of success in," Deaton said. "We're able to practice something similar that we've already done. That's hopefully something that will be very good for us this week."
Special teams could also be big in this game. Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston had an 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Scott County for Highlands. Ryle senior Mason Molique has hit all 10 Point-After Touchdown attempts. Senior Nick Bowman and junior Brennan Haigis have combined to make all nine PATs for the Bluebirds with Huddleston making a two-point conversion run.
Highlands has an all-time record of 11-5 against the Raiders. The last time the Bluebirds beat the Raiders came on Oct. 26, 2013 in Union by a 58-13 score.