|Bluebirds Still Looking for Answers in Latest Defeat|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands junior quarterback Jake Fahlbusch sets up for a throw in the second half against Conner.|
The Highlands Bluebirds football team (4-3 overall, 0-1 district) has consistently prided itself on trust in each other for all 11 players on the field to do their job. But in another tough loss Friday, the visiting Conner Cougars (6-1 overall, 2-0 district) exposed the cracks in that foundation in a 20-17 Class 5A, District 5 victory scoring the game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
The Highlands coaching staff has consistently praised the talent level on this team. They know it is just a matter of "when" everything comes together and the team will succeed like they want to and the community expects.
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But right now, the Bluebirds find themselves in a dark tunnel trying to find the way to the light. In this five-team district, one team will miss the playoffs.
"One thing I know about our guys is they're tough," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Head Coach. "They're not going to stop working. We're not losing faith in our guys. They won't stay down. They're going to come back with their hard hat and go to work (Saturday). They're not going to just roll over and take this. They're going to fight through the tough times."
Conner wore down the Highlands defense running 77 plays to 56 for Highlands. The Cougars garnered 307 yards of total offense and 22 first downs for an average of just under four yards per play to 125 yards and 11 first downs for an average of just more than two yards per play for the Bluebirds.
Conner did have some success with medium to long routes near the sidelines against the Highlands secondary. Conner senior quarterback Jared Hicks completed 24-of-38 passes for 235 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Highlands contained the option rushing attack well.
Senior wide receiver Drew Cobble led the Cougars with eight catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. Senior Caleb Ervin had five catches for 78 yards and junior running back Colton Roy had four receptions for 31 yards and the game-winning 20-yard touchdown reception.
"(Hicks) has been doing that for a couple years," Weinrich said. "He's a really good quarterback. If you give a guy like him 40 passes plus another 40 rushing attempts like they had, they're going to pop stuff free on you. You can only hold the dam for so long. It finally broke. You have to figure out a way to play every play and regroup."
Conner did execute better on third down converting 7-of-15 chances for 47 percent to 4-of-12 for 33 percent for Highlands. The Bluebirds converted 1-of-2 fourth-down tries for 50 percent compared to 1-of-3 for 33 percent for the Cougars.
Highlands senior defensive back Sawyer Depp led the way defensively with 15 tackles including four assisted. Senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston had 13 tackles with six assisted. Senior defensive lineman Conner Zell had two sacks.
Highlands tried a number of things offensively. It again came down to one or two people not executing the plays. Senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth played the first half before junior Jake Fahlbusch took over in the second half. The Cougars sacked Hollingsworth a number of times in the first half.
Highlands led 14-0 in the first half. Huddleston returned the opening kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown. Later in the quarter on 4th-and-Long, Hollingsworth found senior wide receiver Joey Deschler for a 30-yard touchdown near the left corner of the end zone. Deschler had two catches for 42 yards.
Conner chipped away at the lead slowly in the second half. Junior kicker Nicholas Keller hit field goals of 30 and 34 yards to trim it to 14-6 after the third quarter. Hicks then hit Cobble for a score early in the fourth quarter, but the two-point conversion pass failed.
Highlands did put an offensive drive together. Fahlbusch and the running backs of senior Tyler Brune and sophomore Griffin Richter drove the Bluebirds inside the Conner 10. After the drive stalled, Highlands senior kicker Brennan Haigis hit a 27-yard field goal to put Highlands up 17-12 with 4:31 left in the game.
Highlands will again spend the week trying to fix the cracks in the foundation before heading to Boone County (2-5, 0-2) for a huge district game Friday. Game time is 7 p.m. in Florence.