The second half showed how explosive both sides of the ball and special teams can be as Highlands (6-1 overall) pulled away from the host Dixie Heights Colonels (0-8), 49-6 in Class 5A, District 5 action. This marked the most lopsided victory of the season for Highlands with its highest point total this year. It also marked the second time the Bluebirds enforced the running clock rule and clinched the first winning season for the Bluebirds since 2015.
The Bluebirds have 80 sophomores, juniors and seniors on the roster compared to 50 for Dixie Heights. Highlands does not have anyone going both directions consistently. That let the Bluebirds wear down the Colonels, especially in the second half.
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Highlands put up 577 yards of total offense on 75 plays for an average of just under 7.7 yards per play. Dixie Heights had just 208 yards on 64 plays for an average of 3.25 yards per play. Highlands also had no turnovers while picking off four Dixie Heights passes.
The Bluebirds have picked off 13 passes as a team this year out of their 3-5 defense. Senior defensive back Casey Greene and senior linebacker Jackson Hagedorn added to their team-highs with one pick each. They have three each on the season. Junior defensive back Jacob Brass recorded his second pick this year and junior linebacker Brennan Haigis had his first this year.
"We still gave up too many big plays," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We had a couple breakdowns early and right there at the start of the second half and gave them some field position. We had a penalty on the kick-off. They hit us with a fade right away. It's just things you have to keep working on and get better each week."
The Bluebird passing game had the break-out game it needed out of the spread attack. Senior quarterback Grady Cramer completed 20-of-33 passes for a season-high 330 yards and three touchdowns. Highlands averaged just 151.5 yards per game passing the ball entering the game.
Highlands did a good job getting the wide receivers into favorable match-ups, breaking tackles and going for big plays. Senior Nate Roberts destroyed Dixie's 3-4 defense with six catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. Dixie did not have senior defensive tackle KeeShawn Westley available so the Colonels had to change some things in their scheme.
"It was pretty awesome," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It was great to see us do things well. Individual guys stepped up and made some great plays. I can't be more proud of them."
The other two leading receivers for Highlands in junior Hunter Ahlfeld and senior Austin King also had key catches. Ahlfeld had six receptions for 67 yards and King had four catches for 29 yards.
"We were struggling in the first half a little bit," said Liam Ehrman, Highlands senior wide receiver. "But we came back in the second half and played better. We came together as a team."
That opened things up for the Bluebird running game that gained 247 yards total after entering the game averaging 119.2 per contest. Dixie Heights focused on Highlands senior running back Cooper Schwalbach defensively. Schwalbach had 16 carries for 166 yards and two scores for an average of just more than 10.3 per carry.
"We just came out (at halftime) with a better mentality," said Charlie Moore, Highlands sophomore offensive lineman. "Coach Weinrich gave a great halftime speech. That pumped us up. We kept grinding down the field and scoring. We just have put our minds to it. Being angry is one of the most important parts of playing offensive line. You have to be mad and drive your guy down the field."
Highlands contained junior quarterback Jeremy Adams, who came into the game as the team's leading rusher. The Colonels tried a number of quarterback draws early in the game out of their spread offense.
"(Adams) has a great arm. He's a big guy so we needed to keep a lot of pressure on him and make sure he couldn't throw a deep ball," said Sylvan Frazier, Highlands defensive lineman. "You could see when we didn't get the pressure on him, he was throwing deep touchdowns."
Adams rushed for 40 yards on 15 carries for an average of about 2.7 per carry and completed just 7-of-23 passes for 128 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Senior Channing Williams led the Colonels with seven catches for 142 yards and a touchdown.
"(The QB draw) is really what they've shown this year," Weinrich said. "The QB is a great athlete. They really like to get him the ball and they do as he goes so we knew that we had to try to keep him under control. He does a great job reading the defense. He gets rid of the ball so quick. He kept us honest early. Once we took that away from them, we made them play left-handed."
Highlands still has work to do in third and fourth-down situations. The Bluebirds converted on just 3-of-11 on third down for 27 percent and 1-of-4 on fourth down for 25 percent. The red Colonels did not convert on any of their 10 third down tries or its lone fourth down attempt inside the Highlands 5 early in the third quarter.
After struggling on its first couple possessions, Highlands scored the only touchdown needed with 4:13 left in the first quarter. Cramer found Roberts down the right sideline for a 55-yard score and senior Nick Bowman made the extra-point attempt to put the Bluebirds up 7-0.
Highlands went up 21-0 at halftime after two Schwalbach scores. The first one came from 14 yards out with 10:17 left in the second quarter and the other one came with 55 seconds left from two yards out.
Following a stop on fourth-and-goal from their own 3 on second down, Cramer threw a quick out pass to Roberts. Roberts jumped over a Dixie Heights defender and ran down the left sideline 97 yards for a touchdown to put Highlands up 28-0 with 7:40 left in the third quarter.
Dixie Heights responded when Adams found Williams for a 34-yard touchdown 16 seconds later. But Cramer hit Ahlfeld on a quick out to the left. Ahlfeld then broke a tackle and raced 35 yards for the score with 6:29 left in the third to put Highlands up 35-6.
Highlands then enforced the running clock with 4:10 left in the quarter. Sophomore Joe Buten broke free for a 25-yard touchdown. Buten finished with 50 yards on five carries for an average of 10 per touch. Cramer then found sophomore wide receiver Sam Vinson for the two-point conversion to put the Bluebirds up 43-6.
The Bluebirds added one touchdown with 8:27 left in the game. Junior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth scored from nine yards out. But the PAT kick was missed.
Dixie Heights is the most common opponent in Highlands history with 75 meetings. The Bluebirds are 66-9 all-time against the red Colonels.
Highlands plays host to defending Class 5A state champion and arch-rival Covington Catholic (6-0) on Oct. 12. Game time is 7 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.