|Bluebirds, Rebels Seek First District Win|
|PHOTO: G. Michael Graham, Fort Thomas Matters. Highlands senior defensive lineman Conner Zell has helped provide solid play up front.|
The Bluebirds (4-3 overall, 0-1 district) had just suffered a rough 20-17 loss to the 6-1 Conner Cougars to open Class 5A, District 5 action. Highlands has three district games left. But the Bluebirds hope to find answers this week because another district loss would be a huge blow. One team in this five-team district will not make the playoffs this year.
As tough as Friday was for Highlands, the next team on the schedule also finds itself trying to dig out of an even deeper tunnel in the Boone County Rebels (2-5, 0-2). Game time is 7 p.m. Friday in Florence.
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"It is what it is," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We have to show up and play. Unfortunately, we don't have any grass to use. We have to worry about ourselves and we have to play."
The Rebels opened the season with wins over Covington Holmes (20-6) and Lexington Dunbar (34-28) to match the win total from last year and record their first 2-0 start since 2011 under the guidance of first-year and former Ryle Head Coach Bryson Warner. But Boone County has lost five straight including two shutouts. Covington Catholic shut out the Rebels, 45-0 in Park Hills on Friday.
Highlands has outscored opponents, 189-101 for averages of 27 to between 14 and 15 points per game. Boone County has been outscored 216-83 for averages of about 31 to 12 per game.
The Bluebirds are primarily trying to find answers in their Spread offense. They have put up 727 yards rushing and 1,145 passing for averages of just under 104 rushing and between 163 and 164 passing.
A big decision this week comes at the quarterback spot. Senior Collin Hollingsworth has started every game but the season opener at Scott. Hollingsworth has completed 80-of-154 passes for 1,016 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Hollingsworth has also rushed for 137 yards on 85 attempts and three touchdowns.
But junior Jake Fahlbusch took over in the second half against Conner. Fahlbusch started against Scott. He has completed 13-of-22 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Fahlbusch did lead the Bluebirds down the field for a field goal in the fourth quarter before Conner drove downfield for the game-winning touchdown.
Highlands has often gained minimal, no or negative yardage on first down then not much more on second down if any at all putting itself in 3rd-and-long situations. That's when teams have been bringing the house and exposing holes in the Highlands pass protection. The result has sometimes been the quarterbacks running away from pressure and taking huge sacks.
"It's a collective team thing," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's not an offense-defense thing. It's a single unit type. We're addressing it because we are that close. It feels like we've been saying that week after week. The coaches are on them. We're going to continue to drive it home to make those corrections."
That goes back to the execution. On those first or second down plays, one or two blocks do not happen, running backs may not cut properly, the quarterbacks may hesitate too much or the wide receivers can't get open.
When Highlands gets that first down, the offense gets into that up-tempo mode. The Bluebirds know they can wear down teams when they are able to run a lot of plays. They've unfortunately been nowhere near the play goal that Umberg has set the last two games.
"It's our job to put our players in the best positions to succeed as individuals and as an overall group as a team," Umberg said. "We stand by it. We feel that we are continuing to put them in best positions to succeed. It's all about us and getting us on track and getting into what we do and what we do best."
Fahlbusch ran the read-option with senior running back Tyler Brune and sophomore running back Griffin Richter well on that last series against Conner. Brune leads Highlands with 261 yards rushing on 67 carries and three touchdowns for an average of just under four yards per carry. Junior running back Joe Buten has still not played since the Campbell County game.
"We're trying to build more chemistry with the team. That's why we're staying after practice trying to run 25 more plays," said Patrick Clukey, Highlands junior wide receiver. "We feel like our chemistry hasn't been there since week one. Our timing has been off and all that so we're trying to build it more."
Boone County runs a 3-4 defense. The Rebels have allowed 914 yards rushing and 1,102 yards passing for averages of between 130 and 131 rushing and between 157 and 158 passing. Junior linebacker Dave Bodenbender is Boone County's leading tackler with 70 including eight for a loss and two sacks to go with a team-high three fumble recoveries.
The Rebels have recovered eight fumbles and intercepted four passes. Senior defensive back Adam Hicks leads Boone County with four picks,
The Highlands 3-5 defense has kept the Bluebirds in every game this season. Teams have put up 1,028 yards rushing and 783 passing against Highlands for averages of just under 147 rushing and just under 112 passing.
The Bluebirds put a lot of pressure on opposing offenses mainly because of sound techniques from the defensive linemen. That frees up linebackers to make plays. Senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston leads the Bluebirds with 65 tackles including eight for a loss and four quarterback sacks. Senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin has a team-high 10 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
Conner did find some holes in the Highlands secondary last week. It did not help that senior defensive back Noah LaMothe was not able to play, nor the fact that the Cougars ran 78 plays to 57 for the Bluebirds.
"We're working on putting their back on our chest, playing the ball and kind of attacking their wrists so they can't really catch it as easy," said Dominic Robinson, Highlands junior defensive back. "We didn't really do a ton of a good job last week doing that, but we're doing a lot of drills to make sure we swat the ball down as much as we can. We try to focus on their hips. We try not to watch their heads as much because the head moves different ways. But if we focus on the hips and we wait until they put their hands in the air. We go off that and try to judge where the ball is."
The Bluebirds still have 22 takeaways with 12 picks and 10 fumble recoveries on the season to 10 giveaways. Senior defensive back Jacob Brass leads the way with six interceptions and junior linebacker Mason South has a team-high two fumble recoveries.
The Rebels have rushed for 914 yards and passed for 280 for averages of between 130 and 131 yards rushing and 40 yards passing per game. Boone County has implemented a pro-style offense and has run the ball nearly 79 percent of the time.
Junior running back Evan Curee leads the Rebels with 281 yards rushing on 73 attempts and four touchdowns for an average of just under four yards per touch. The leading passer is sophomore quarterback Samuel Brown with 151 yards completing 21-of-33 attempts and an interception. Senior wide receiver Seth Grigson leads the Rebels with 13 receptions for 124 yards.
"They're using a tight end. They're using two backs," Weinrich said. "They'll use the quarterback as a running back so at times, it's a three-back offense. They're just going to try to power you, give some misdirection. It's going to be a physical game defensively for sure."
Highlands is 38-3 all-time against the Rebels. The Bluebirds have defeated Boone County in four straight meetings since the series resumed in 2015.