|Bluebirds Hold Off Jaguars, 14-7|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior running back Sawyer Depp takes off for a 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Depp finished with 128 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns in the Highlands win.|
But when the dust settled, only one thing mattered. Highlands 14, Cooper 7.
Highlands clinched a winning season at 6-4 and finished 2-2 in Class 5A, District 5 action and Cooper finished 5-5 and 1-3. Both teams enter the bye week Friday before the playoffs begin.
"The game plan was the game plan," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We had to keep (the Cooper skill position players) in front of us, try to make them dance and tackle them out in space. It was easier said than done. We settled down and kept finding ways to make plays as the game went along. I give the defensive guys credit for hanging in there and staying patient. It was frustrating at times them throwing those little dink and dunk passes. They're so quick out in space."
The Bluebirds travel to second-place Conner (7-2) for the first round of the playoffs while Cooper will venture to district champion and top-seeded Covington Catholic (10-0). This marks the first time since 2007 that the Kentucky High School Athletic Association voted to pair up district rivals in the first round of the playoffs. Covington Catholic handled Conner, 45-7 to complete a third consecutive undefeated regular season.
Cooper moved the ball better gaining 267 yards on 78 plays and 18 first downs for an average of 3.4 yards per carry. Highlands gained 206 yards on 47 plays and eight first downs for an average of just under 4.4 yards per play.
"Our kids played their tails off. We played a good football team, a very physical football team," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "We have a lot of kids obviously going both ways and they kind of wore us down there toward the end. We had our chances. We couldn't make a play."
Neither team converted well on third and fourth down. Highlands converted just 3-of-11 for 27 percent on third down and did not convert its lone fourth-down try. Cooper converted on 5-of-15 for 33 percent on third down and 1-of-2 for 50 percent on fourth down.
The Highlands defense came up huge all game after the first Cooper possession. The Bluebirds recorded three interceptions to one for the Jaguars. Junior Jason Noe had two picks including one that led to a field-goal try that just missed for the Bluebirds.
"We were just doing what our coaches told us to do," Noe said. "As long as we line up right, everything should go well."
Junior linebacker Mason South had the other interception that led to a touchdown in the second quarter. South took the ball to the Cooper 20 after the Bluebirds put pressure on Jaguar sophomore quarterback Drew Warth.
"My coaches put me in a good position to make a play on the ball," South said. "Then I knew I had to get the ball back for our offense so they could put up more points. I always like it when our offense scores points."
On the very next play, Highlands senior running back Sawyer Depp broke free for a 20-yard touchdown run. Senior kicker Brennan Haigis hit his first of two point-after-touchdown tries to tie the game at 7-7 with 7:34 left in the first half.
"We have the ability to do that every single play," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's a missed assignment here. It's a missed assignment there. But at the end of the day, we're coming out with the number one goal. We were going against a good football team with a lot of athletes. I didn't walk in thinking it would be a blowout by any means. I knew this would be a hard-fought game. Hat's off to our guys. They grinded it out. There are a lot of positives to take from it."
Depp finished with 128 yards rushing on 12 carries for just more than 10 yards per carry and two touchdowns. Junior running back Joe Buten added 76 yards on 16 carries for an average of 4.75 yards per carry.
Depp's second touchdown run came with 7:09 left in the third quarter. Depp found room up the middle and burst past the Cooper defense 72 yards for the touchdown. Haigis added the PAT to make the final score.
"On plays where we don't at least get yardage, there's someone who messes up his job in either a big way or a little way," said Max Dierig, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "Every time we get a touchdown, everyone does his job to the best of his ability with as much aggression as possible."
Highlands did not do much through the air. Highlands senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth completed 2-of-8 passes for six yards. The Bluebirds dropped a wide-open pass in the second half.
"We're banged up at (wide receiver)," Umberg said. "That's going to have to change your game plan a little bit. We're not abandoning the passing game by any means. We're going to continue to hone in on what we can do to make those receivers now that are in the full rotation more successful and finding the little niches and creases that will put them in the best positions to succeed is our number one job now."
The Jaguars took the ball at their own 45 to start the game and marched down the field. Lining up out of the wildcat formation, Cooper junior Jeremiah Lee scored from a yard out and Warth added the PAT to put Cooper up 7-0 with 7:43 left in the first quarter.
"We knew coming into the ballgame they were going to try to take Jeremiah Lee away," Borchers said. "They did a pretty good job of it. We just tried to take what they were giving us. We made a couple bad decisions, which cost us. We played a sophomore quarterback against a team that brings pressure and does a great job up front. I felt we were able to do some things especially early to keep them off-balance and we kind of got out of it a little bit. On that last drive, we got back into it and our running back had some nice runs and some big passes. Unfortunately when you have a football game with two good teams, someone has to lose. They're a senior-laden team. We played some young kids and we haven't found a way to win close ballgames yet."
Warth completed 19-of-36 passes for 162 yards. Freshman wide receiver Zion Mason led the Jaguars with 67 yards on six catches and Lee had eight catches for 61 yards.
After a missed field goal, Cooper took over with 7:14 left in the game and drove down to the Highlands 2. On 4th-and-1, the Jaguars ran senior running back Anthony Witschey, but the Bluebirds held him to no gain and the offense ran out the clock to preserve the victory.
"Really, it was like a blur at first. I remember I just read my key, saw it was a counter. I knew where (Witchey) was going, knew where I needed to fill and I knew that I needed to make a play," said Brycen Huddleston, Highlands senior linebacker. "You always have to think you're the only one on the field to make the play. I know that I'm not making a play if defensive lineman doesn't squeeze down or the defensive back is not covering that dude. If no one else is doing what they're supposed to do, I'm not making that play, nor is anyone else."
Huddleston led Highlands with 11 tackles including three for a loss. Senior linebacker Mason Schwalbach and senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin had two tackles for a loss.
"It just makes it so worth coming in every day," Weinrich said. "It just makes you so proud to be associated with guys that found a way to win the game this week. I don't care about the score. We found a way to make a stop there at the end."
The Bluebirds moved to 4-1 all-time against the Jaguars. The teams opened up the season against each other between 2015 and last year. Cooper beat Highlands, 37-13 in that first meeting in 2015, but the Bluebirds have won four in a row in the series since then.