The Bluebirds (5-3 overall, 1-1 Class 5A, District 5) and the Covington Catholic Colonels consistently have this game circled on their schedules considering the teams have combined for 30 state championships. Highlands is second in the state with 23 and CovCath is ninth with seven.
The two teams meet Friday at 7 p.m. with the Colonels coming into the game undefeated at 8-0 and 2-0 in district play with the top Associated Press ranking in Class 5A. CovCath has won 37 of its last 38 games including the Class 5A state championship in 2017. The lone loss dating back to the start of 2017 came 20-16 to South Warren in the 2018 Class 5A state championship game.
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The stats show why CovCath stands at the highest perch in Class 5A in the rankings. The Colonels have outscored opponents, 336-54 for an average of 42 to between six and seven points per game.
"None of that matters except for the fact that it's a big game," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach of the rankings and team records. "It's one game. You have to take what's happening right now. You have to take the guys that are available right now. You have to put them in the best position possible for them to succeed."
Teams have especially had a hard time moving the ball against the solid 3-4 CovCath defense led by senior linebacker and Notre Dame commit Michael Mayer. Opponents have run for just 159 yards and passed for 853 this season for averages of between 19 and 20 yards per game, between 106 and 107 passing and between 126 and 127 overall. CovCath has shut out four opponents this year.
"(Mayer) is as good of a football player as I've ever seen," Weinrich said. "He's different because he's got such a unique skill set. Not many guys have the talent to go catch the deep ball. He's a great deep catcher. He runs great routes. He can block. He never stops. You watch him play basketball and he has the best attitude on the court. As a pure football fan, he is fun to watch."
Umberg said the Colonels do a great job slanting with the defensive line. Mayer, at 6-feet-5-inches and 235 pounds, has 48 tackles on the season including three for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Mayer also had two forced fumbles and two interceptions including one returned 45 yards for a touchdown in the 27-7 win over Cincinnati (Ohio) La Salle in a battle of undefeated teams Friday in Park Hills.
"Mostly, we can't get distracted with everything they do up front," said Dylan Turner, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "As long as we step the right way and do exactly what we're coached to do, we should be able to pick it up. Anything they do up front, we should be able to block as long as we do the right fundamentals and go fast."
Senior running back/linebacker Daniel Felix is second with 42 tackles with five sacks. Senior defensive lineman Zachary Allen has 4.5 sacks this season.
Overall, CovCath has recovered two fumbles and intercepted 12 passes defensively. Senior Michael Thelen and senior defensive back Jack Raisbeck also have two picks each for the Colonels.
"They are as good as you can possibly as a slanting defensive line," Umberg said. "They're going to put you in a bind every opportunity that they can. They're well-coached. We know what they're going to do. They know what we're going to do. It's all about who's going to execute better and who's going to show up. There are no secrets across the board. It's about who's going to out-execute the other."
CovCath came a few plays away from losing once to Lexington Catholic in Park Hills on Sept. 6. The Knights led most of the game until the end. Leading by the final score of 39-38 late in the game, LexCath had the ball 4th-and-1 at the CovCath 46, but the Colonels stuffed Knight quarterback Beau Allen short of the first down.
Allen torched the CovCath defense completing 23-of-33 passes for 455 yards and five touchdowns. Up 38-31 before punting in the fourth quarter, Allen had a wide receiver open behind the defense. But the receiver dropped the ball. Umberg said that stat is misleading because the Knights only rushed for 45 yards that game.
Highlands found some success offensively in the 49-0 win at Boone County on Friday. The Bluebirds have outscored opponents, 238-101 for averages of between 29 and 30 points to between 12 and 13 points per game.
The Highlands Spread offense has put up 1,009 yards rushing and 1,257 yards passing. The Bluebirds averages between 126 and 127 yards rushing, between 157 and 158 passing and between 283 and 284 overall.
The Bluebirds used senior linebacker Brycen Huddleston and senior defensive backs Sawyer Depp and Jacob Brass on offense against the Rebels. Depp is fourth on the team with 136 yards rushing on six carries and two touchdowns for an average of between 22 and 23 yards per carry.
"We just had to get the plays down and do it really fast," Brass said. "It wasn't that hard. CovCath obviously has a good team like usual. We have a really good team, too. We just have to believe in that and execute what we've been doing in practice. It should be a really good game."
Sophomore Griffin Richter and senior Tyler Brune still lead Highlands in rushing. Richter has 61 touches for 292 yards and a touchdown for an average of between four and five yards per carry and Brune has 269 yards on 71 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between three and four yards a touch. Junior running back Joe Buten also returned after missing the last four games.
The key for the Highlands offensive line will be creating room for the running backs and quarterbacks on running plays and allowing the quarterbacks enough time to make plays passing the ball. Highlands senior quarterback Collin Hollingsworth has completed 87-of-164 passes for 1,119 yards, 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. Hollingsworth has also rushed for 269 yards on 71 rushes and three touchdowns for between three to four yards a touch.
The Bluebirds have four wide receivers with 13 or more catches, but senior wide receiver Jack Delagrange did not play against Boone County. Delagrange has 18 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Hunter Ahlfeld leads the Bluebirds with 20 catches for 262 yards and six touchdowns. Senior wide receivers Joey Deschler and Adam Weyer have also had big catches. Deschler has 16 catches for 229 yards and four touchdowns and Weyer has 13 receptions for 219 yards.
The Highlands 3-5 defense continues to play well. The Bluebirds have three shutouts this season, which is the most since the last undefeated Highlands team in 2011 recorded four. Teams have rushed for 1,084 yards and passed for just 830 for averages of 135.5 per game rushing and between 103 and 104 passing for a grand total of between 239 and 240 yards per game.
"You talk about it all year long," Weinrich said. "In a game like this, there are going to be three, four, five plays that make the difference. They don't tell you when those four are going to happen so you have to be ready every play to do your job the best you can do. You have to reset each play because on mistake - one wrong step, one wrong key, one missed blocking assignment for either team could be the difference in the game."
Huddleston continues to lead Highlands with 66 tackles including eight for a loss and four sacks. The Bluebirds have 48 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks. Senior defensive lineman Zach Lewin has 11 tackles for a loss and has tied Huddleston with four sacks.
Highlands has recorded 24 takeaways on the season with an even 12 fumble recoveries and 12 interceptions. Brass leads the Bluebirds with six picks with Depp and junior linebacker Mason South recording two fumble recoveries each.
The CovCath Spread offense has rushed for 1,531 yards and passed for 1,518. Junior quarterback Caleb Jacob has completed 86-of-136 passes for 1,514 yards, 19 touchdowns and five interceptions. His main target has been none other than Mayer with 27 catches for 505 yards and nine touchdowns.
Senior wide receiver Andrew Molique is second for the Colonels with 16 catches for 303 yards and two touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Ethan Reardon has 17 carries for 272 yards and four scores.
With the graduation of standout Casey McGinness, CovCath has seen a team effort to make up for his production in the offensive backfield. Senior running back Daniel Felix leads the way with 48 carries for 320 yards and nine touchdowns for an average of between six and seven yards per carry. Michael Boydston is second with 296 yards on 31 carries and four touchdowns
Highlands is still seeking the 50th win in school history against Covington Catholic. The Bluebirds still lead the all-time series, 49-21, but have lost the last four games against the Colonels.