Saturday, September 8, 2018
The Highlands Bluebirds football team headed to Union on Friday knowing this marked the best chance to put an end to three-plus years of frustration in weeks two through five since the current classification period started in 2015.
The Bluebirds (3-1 overall) put together their most complete performance of the year with a 40-3 Highlands-like domination of the Ryle Raiders (1-3) in non-region action for their first win over the Raiders since 2012. The last Highlands win during weeks two through five came on Sept. 26, 2014 in a 42-7 domination of the arch-rival Covington Catholic Colonels at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
The yards per play told the tale of the Highlands domination. The Bluebirds employed a balanced attack gaining 344 yards on 63 plays for an average of about 5.5 yards per play and held the Raiders to just 82 yards on 66 plays for an average of about 1.2 per play.
"We played well. It all goes back to having a great week of practice," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We got better each day in practice and it carried into the game."
Highlands had 13 first downs to eight for Ryle. Both teams struggled on third down. Highlands converted on 3-of-13 opportunities for 23 percent and 2-of-3 on fourth for 67 percent. The Highlands 3-5 defense held Ryle to 2-of-16 on third down for 13 percent and 1-of-5 for 20 percent on fourth down.
The Bluebirds again won the turnover picking off three passes and recovering two fumbles. Highlands threw one interception in the first quarter. Ryle senior defensive back Dylan Green recorded the pick.
Senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn recorded the first pick-six for the Bluebirds in the first quarter. The Bluebirds put pressure on Ryle junior quarterback Keegan Stanken and forced a bad throw. Hagedorn took it near the left sideline and cut back to score the 24-yard touchdown.
"A big point of emphasis this year has just been trusting our keys, coming downhill and really just trusting the guys beside us," said Nick Bowman, Highlands senior linebacker. "Once you're trusting the guy beside you and know what you're doing (strategically), then you can just play fast. Once you play fast, you start making plays."
Junior linebacker Brycen Huddleston and senior defensive back Addison Reynolds had the other two Highlands interceptions. Highlands scored right after Huddleston's interception set the Bluebirds up at the Ryle 39. Bluebird junior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld ran straight down the right sideline and senior quarterback Grady Cramer hit him in stride for the touchdown to put Highlands up 33-7.
"For the third game this year, we scored on the first series, which is huge," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Anytime you can score seven points in the first series, it really helps set a tone for a game. We connected on some deep passes, which we'd been struggling to do so far so that was encouraging. Our sprint-out game was great, but there is still some stuff that we left out there. I think we left at least three scores out there in the first half. The great thing is we get to watch film and fix those issues. But the good news is we did score 40 points on top of making some mistakes."
Junior linebacker Mason Schwalbach and junior linebacker Nelson Bibb had the fumble recoveries. Schwalbach leads the Bluebirds with two fumble recoveries this season. The Bluebirds have eight interceptions and six fumble recoveries on the season.
"It's just about going as hard as you can every play and just getting after the ball," Bibb said. "You do the best you can to get the W. The momentum helps 100 percent. You just keep going and try your best. It helps a lot."
Holding Ryle to 82 yards was no small feat. The Raiders entered the game averaging 155 yards rushing and 238 passing. They had just 13 rushing and 69 passing. The Bluebirds held Ryle junior running back Kyle England to just 27 yards rushing on 12 carries for barely over two per carry. England rushed for 308 yards entering the game.
Stanken made his second career varsity start against the Bluebirds. He'd completed 14-of-20 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-13 Ryle win at Boone County last Saturday. Stanken completed just 9-of-27 passes for 69 yards against Highlands.
The Bluebirds sacked Stanken four times. Hagedorn had one sack and another tackle for a loss. Huddleston, junior linebacker Alex Starkey and junior defensive lineman Brennan White also had sacks.
Senior wide receiver Brandon Soden had a 35-yard touchdown reception against Boone County. Soden also tied junior running back Elijah Cusick for a team-high 164 yards receiving on six catches entering the game. Highlands senior defensive back Bailey Armstrong held Soden to one catch for seven yards. The Bluebirds held Cusick to no catches and just five carries for 12 yards.
Ryle senior wide receiver Max Inabnit had a team-high nine catches entering the game for 73 yards. He lead the Raiders with four catches for 20 yards. The longest Ryle pass play was for 42 yards by senior tight end Stefan Clarkson.
On the other side, the Bluebirds rushed for 191 yards and passed for 153. They entered the game averaging 111 yards per game passing and just under 121 rushing. Cramer completed 13-of-26 passes for that total. Senior Nate Roberts led Highlands with four catches for 67 yards and a touchdown with Ahlfeld hauling in two passes for 48 yards.
The Highlands offensive line opened up some holes for senior running back Cooper Schwalbach. Schwalbach had 17 carries for 146 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bluebirds had some running plays that gained minimal or lost a few yards. But Deaton pointed out some positives to plays like that.
"Anytime a play works, it makes you feel really good and it makes you happy inside," Deaton said. "Plays build off each other. We run a play and it might only be a two-yard gain. But it helps set up other things throughout the game. A two-yard gain might have been caught way outside the box. Now, they have to cover the field. That really opens things up other places."
Cooper Schwalbach broke around the right end on the first possession for the touchdown for 63 yards. Highlands tried a two-point conversion run out of the Muddle Huddle formation, but Ryle stopped it. The Bluebirds led 13-0 at halftime.
Ryle scored its lone points in the second quarter. Senior placekicker Mason Molique hit a 44-yard field goal to trim the margin to 13-3.
But Cooper Schwalbach scored his second touchdown on a dazzing move. He broke away from a tackle in the backfield trying to go right. But he broke a tackle, reversed field and dove in for the two-yard score. Bowman's second of four Point-After-Touchdown kicks gave Highlands a 20-3 advantage. Bowman hit field goals of 38 and 29 yards to help build the Bluebird lead to 26-3 at halftime.
"We just stick to our plan," Cooper Schwalbach said. "Hopefully, the line steps up and moves people. They stepped up in the second half. We've improved a lot."
Following Ahlfeld's score, Highlands scored late in the third quarter on 4th-and-11 to enforce the running clock. Roberts broke free on the right side for the touchdown to make the final score. Ryle's defense had been allowing 254 yards per game entering the game.
"It definitely looked like Highlands," said Logan Guy, Highlands senior wide receiver. "We went out there and did what we were supposed to do. I feel like the receivers improved (Friday). We had some ups and downs, but we'll get a lot better."
Highlands travels south on Friday to face undefeated Lexington Catholic (4-0). Game time is 7:30 p.m.