|Defense Stout in Highlands Victory|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior defensive back Max Guetle (13) and the Bluebirds defense held Ryle to just more than 1.5 yards per play in the 27-0 victory.|
That is play solid defense, create turnovers, don't turn the ball over and let the offense put some things together. That led to a second shutout this year in a 27-0 victory over the visiting Ryle Raiders (3-2 overall).
The Highlands defense limited Ryle to just 97 yards of total offense on 64 plays with 60 coming on the ground for an average of just more than 1.5 yards per play. The Raiders had just seven first downs. The longest play for the Raiders was 16 yards.
"It's satisfying to watch the guys play hard and trust each other," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We're really getting there. That's what we were preaching. Defensively, when you trust the guy next to you, that allows you to play loose and really get after it. We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of football, and a lot of football with each other. They're really starting to gel."
Highlands is 4-1 at the halfway point after playing its last of three straight against teams from Class 6A, District 6. The Bluebirds won those three meetings by a combined score of 102-7.
Highlands had defeated Campbell County (47-0) at home before pulling away from Simon Kenton (28-7) in the fourth quarter last week. The Bluebirds do not play the fourth team from that district in Dixie Heights (1-3) this year.
The Raiders like to first establish the run out of their Spread offense with senior running back Kyle England. England came into the game having rushed for 531 yards on 72 carries and 11 touchdowns for an average of around 7.5 yards per carry. He had just more than 64 percent of the rushes for Ryle entering the game.
But Highlands constantly block off blocks and consistently had a number of guys around England when he touched the ball. England finished with 55 yards rushing on 19 carries for an average of just under three yards per touch. His longest run was 14 yards.
"It was really just (about) reading the keys, coming downhill and being patient from the back side because we knew he liked to cut back and spin," said Conner Zell, Highlands defensive lineman. "A lot of times, it was outside zone left and he would cut it back right. Coach Weinrich always says big plays happen on cutbacks. That's what we were really able to prevent. We were able to contain him on the front side as well."
Weinrich credited the defensive lineman in Zell and seniors Zach Lewin, Griffin Welsch, Brennan White and Sylvan Frazier for winning the battles against the Ryle offensive line. Lewin had three sacks to go with five solo and five assisted tackles and White had one sack.
"The defensive line usually doesn't get enough credit just like the offensive line," Weinrich said. "We are able to do so much stuff defensively because our defensive linemen are playing just so fast, so aggressive and so confidently. You can't single-block those guys and if you try to double-team them then are linebackers are running. They are doing such a great job disrupting (opposing offenses). We got a point (Friday) where we stopped blitzing because we'd as soon keep our guys in coverage and keep an eye on (England) and let our D-linemen get pressure on the quarterback and they were doing a great job of it."
Highlands saw senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston lead the way recording eight solo and five assisted tackles. Huddleston also had two quarterback sacks.
Zell blocked a punt with 8:16 left in the third quarter and senior defensive back Sawyer Depp recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Highlands led 21-0 at that point.
Ryle sophomore quarterback Luke Worley and senior quarterback Keegan Stanken did not have much time to throw combining for just 6-of-19 passes for 37 yards and two interceptions. The longest pass play for the Raiders went for 10 yards.
Highlands recorded four turnovers and did not turn the ball over for the second straight game. The Bluebirds are plus-13 on the season in the turnover department. Juniors Patrick Clukey and Mason South had fumble recoveries. Senior Jacob Brass recorded his team-high fifth interception of the season.
Highlands put some reserves in the game late. Sophomore defensive back Will Hartman picked off a Ryle pass in the fourth quarter.
"It's a great feeling to be able to go out there and compete with the varsity guys taking advantage (of the opportunity) and showing the coaches what I have," Hartman said. "(Ryle) was pretty good at throwing some deep balls. We all knew what we had to do. We just did our jobs and it worked out for us in the end."
Highlands scored the first touchdown after Ryle muffed a punt and the Bluebirds took over at the Ryle 35. After senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth scrambled right for a first down on 4th-and-Long, senior wide receiver Joey Deschler broke free on the left side for a wide-open touchdown with 1:08 left in the first quarter. Senior kicker Brennan Haigis hit his first of three point-after-touchdown kicks to put the Bluebirds up 7-0.
"It happened a couple times where the defense got the ball back in a hurry and we had to capitalize in a hurry," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "Those were two of the biggest bright spots of the night. Hat's off to our defense for getting us in good spots."
The Highlands offense put up 201 yards of total offense on 67 plays for an average of three yards per play with 12 first downs. The Raiders brought a lot of pressure early on and stopped the Bluebirds in the backfield.
The Bluebirds went to a two-back set in the second half with senior Tyler Brune and sophomore Griffin Richter. Junior running back Joe Buten did not play. Richter finished with a season-high 84 yards rushing on 11 carries for an average of between seven and eight yards per carry.
"We just kept running the ball and the (offensive) line was just improving throughout the game, getting tougher and wore (Ryle) down," Richter said. "That's what happens at the end when the defense is worn down. If you see a hole, you have to take it. If there's not a hole, just wait for your pulling guard or something like that."
Hollingsworth completed 9-of-18 passes for 110 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Hunter Ahlfeld led the Bluebirds with three catches for 35 yards and two touchdowns.
"(Ryle) brought a lot of heat," Umberg said. "We knew they were going to do a lot of line games but then they brought a lot of outside and inside pressure, too. They came at us hard with a lot of energy. I was impressed by that."
Ahlfeld's first touchdown reception came with 6:02 left in the second quarter from 21 yards out on a go route to the left side of the end zone. It came after a short Ryle punt. The Bluebirds started the drive at the Ryle 32. Highlands led 14-0 at halftime.
Highlands put together a nice drive in the fourth quarter. Richter broke free for a 55-yard run down to the Ryle 4. On the next play, Hollingsworth rolled left and found Ahfeld for the 4-yard touchdown.
"(In the) second half, we really just went back to our basic things, just our normal inside zones just doing what we could," said Brock Huber, Highlands senior center. "We just had to adjust our slide protection going over everything one more time trying to figure it out. We had to know who has who and who has what gap just being accountable for one another."
The Bluebirds travel to undefeated Boyle County (5-0) on Friday. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
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