It is just a matter of determining which short destination in Northern Kentucky they will travel to. The Highlands Bluebirds and Cooper Jaguars come into the game with identical 5-4 records and both sit third in District 5 with 1-2 records having lost to Covington Catholic and Conner in district play and both handily defeated Boone County. Game time is 7:30 p.m. in Union on Friday.
Both teams have outscored their nine opponents. Highlands has done it by a 238-114 margin for averages of between 26 and 27 points to between 12 and 13 points per game and the Jaguars have done it, 189-161 for averages of 21 to between 17 and 18 points per game.
"Our players come in every day and work hard to get better," said Randy Borchers, Cooper Head Coach. "We have a lot of young players in key positions and it has been very rewarding watching them grow over the season. Our goal at Cooper has always been to be playing our best football come playoff time and to improve each week during the season. We are hoping that Friday we play our best football of the season."
The Highlands 3-5 defense hopes to come up as huge as it has all season. Opponents have rushed for 1,162 yards and passed for 1,045 for averages of between 129 and 130 yards rushing and between 116 and 117 passing. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said an area of focus for the defense this week will be executing the game plan at a high level.
The Bluebirds held their own against the mighty Covington Catholic Spread offense. But one wrong step on defense led to the game's lone touchdown on the third offensive play of the game against the Colonels.
"You preach all the time and you hear it all the time. You get in a big game and you have two good teams, it's going to be three or four plays that will be the difference," Weinrich said. "That play put us behind for the rest of the game. We wanted to give up no touchdowns to give ourselves a chance to win the game. There were times we were off just a little bit with our technique on third down. We could have got them off the field."
Highlands has done well when the defense gives the offense short field position. The Bluebirds have 11 fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions on the season. Depp and junior linebacker Mason South lead the Bluebirds with two fumble recoveries each with senior defensive back Jacob Brass recording a team-high six interceptions and junior defensive back Jason Noe making two.
"Everyone is hustling and everyone is trusting what Coach Weinrich says," said Tyler Phillipps, Highlands senior defensive lineman. "Over film sessions, he gets the points across really well and shows us why what he's preaching makes success. Everybody needs to be on the same page in order to be successful."
Cooper has gone more to a Spread formation this year trying to take advantage of the athleticism of junior Jeremiah Lee. Borchers said the Jaguars had to use him at quarterback last year and teams knew they had a chance to win if they shut down the Cooper running game, which Highlands did well in a 36-7 victory in Fort Thomas to open last season. Lee had just 25 yards rushing on 18 carries.
The Jaguars have rushed for 1,146 yards and passed for 1,114 yards this year. Those average between 127 and 128 rushing and between 123 and 124 passing per game.
Lee is Cooper's leading receiver with 26 catches for 355 yards and three touchdowns. Lee has also rushed for 265 yards on 52 carries and six touchdowns for an average of just more than five yards per carry and has thrown 13 passes this year.
"What always impresses me with Cooper both offensively and defensively is they are so good at what they do," Weinrich said. "They have a system and they believe in it. (Lee) is really dynamic and he's as quick of a player we've faced in terms of just pure quickness. We have to make sure we know where he is. The problem though defensively is they have a lot of weapons and they do a good job of spreading the ball around and taking advantage of their talent."
Borchers did say the Jaguars are young in some spots. The quarterback is sophomore Drew Warth. Warth has completed 74-of-145 passes for 1,067 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. The leading rusher for Cooper is also a sophomore in Brendon Tye. Tye has rushed for 608 yards on 109 carries and four touchdowns for an average of between five and six yards per carry.
Junior Xavier Smith has also made a difference at wide receiver for the Jaguars. Smith has 23 catches for 287 yards and three touchdowns.
"This week we will need to play a flawless game offensively in order to put points on the board," Borchers said. "We will need to cut out the unforced errors and stay in front of the chains. This season we continue to hurt ourselves offensively with penalties, drops, and turnovers. In order for us to score Friday we will need to cut out silly mistakes, take care of the ball, and win the field position game. Defensively, the Bluebirds are very sound and will not beat themselves."
The Bluebirds Spread Offense has had more than its fair share of challenges and is even more shorthanded at wide receiver without seniors Jack Delagrange, Joey Deschler, Ethan Houze and sophomore Jacob Welch.
"We hone in on the stuff we do in drills every day and emphasize its importance," said Sam Umberg, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It's execution and consistency along with it. We can put a few plays together then shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to eliminate self-inflicted wounds. It's just like we've talked about each week."
Highlands has put up 1,098 yards rushing and 1,303 yards passing offensively. The Bluebirds average 122 yards rushing and between 144 and 145 yards passing. When given time, Highlands senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth has made things happen with his arms and feet. Hollingsworth has completed 91-of-175 passes for 1,165 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. Hollingsworth has also rushed for 169 yards on 102 carries and three touchdowns.
Highlands will have to rely more on the likes of senior wide receivers Hunter Ahlfeld, Adam Weyer and Conner Noon among others this week. Ahlfeld leads the way with 22 catches for 298 yards and six touchdowns with Weyer pulling in 13 catches for 219 yards. Teams have tried to put Highlands in 3rd-and-long situations before bringing blitzes from various angles.
"It starts with the receivers obviously. We have to run better routes," Weyer said. "We have to work on getting open and not just running a route to run a route and be robotic when we do it. We have to work on techniques to get open when we run a route and not do the same thing every single time and make it obvious what we're doing. A lot of things we've been working on is our sticks, our eyes, our feet, all that kind of stuff to fake our a defender to get ourselves open or just come back to the ball more so that Collin can see that we're open. Once Collin sees us and is comfortable with us, he can let it go and we can start getting the ball rolling."
Highlands still sees sophomore running back Griffin Richter lead the way with 292 yards rushing on 61 carries and a touchdown for an average of between four and five yards per touch. Senior Tyler Brune is next with 278 yards on 73 carries and three touchdowns for between three and four yards per touch.
"We have guys who are going to step up and make plays for us," Umberg said. "That's how it's always been here is next man up mentality. You can't dwell on guys being out."
Despite the struggles, Borchers expressed concerns about the athleticism of the Bluebirds on offense. Borchers quickly pointed out the combined record of the teams that Highlands lost to are a combined 29-4.
"Highlands is well-coached and in my opinion, (the Bluebirds) are the best 5-4 team in the state," Borchers said. "Offensively, they do a lot of good things. Their offensive line does a great job up front getting a hat on a hat and getting movement. Their running backs run the ball extremely hard and do a great job of hitting the seams. They have multiple receivers who can beat you deep as well as make big plays after the catch. The quarterback does a great job of extending the play when he feels pressure and is another running threat you have to prepare for when trying to stop them offensively."
Borchers said the Jaguars run 4-2-5 and 3-4 base schemes defensively. He said Cooper has done well creating turnovers, but has been vulnerable to the big play. Like Highlands, Borchers wants to see the Jaguars make teams drive the field.
Teams have rushed for 1,279 yards and passed for 1,091 yards against the Jaguars this year. That averages just more than 142 rushing, just more than 121 passing this year.
Senior linebacker Ethan Bosway and junior defensive back Chester Hale lead the Jaguars with 71 tackles each. Bosway has two sacks and a tackle for a loss. Sophomore defensive lineman Adam Sand leads the Jaguars with four sacks. Umberg also was impressed with senior defensive lineman Tyron Chipwelong, who has 56 tackles including three for a loss and two sacks.
The Jaguars have recovered eight fumbles and intercepted 13 passes. Senior linebacker Joe Poage leads Cooper with three fumble recoveries. Lee and senior defensive back Zach Armour have three interceptions each to lead the Jaguars.
Highlands and Cooper met in the season-opener the previous four seasons. The Bluebirds won three straight after the Jaguars beat the Bluebirds, 37-13 in Union in 2015 in the first-ever meeting between the two teams.