By G. Michael Graham
The final game before district play will be a dandy for the Highlands Bluebirds football team.
Highlands (1-1 overall) comes into the battle with the Boyle County Rebels off a much-needed 23-14 road win over the Ryle Raiders on Friday. The Bluebirds know some things have to improve quickly to pull off the win over the Rebels, who are still rolling with a new head coach.
Boyle County (2-0) dominated Mercer County (51-7) at home to open the season before scoring 35 unanswered points in the second half to pull away from the Christian Academy of Louisville (56-21) on the road last week for a total of 107-28 for an average of 53.5 to 14. Former Breathitt County 2002 undefeated Class AA state champion quarterback Justin Haddix came over from Corbin after longtime Boyle County Head Coach Chuck Smith retired after last season.
"It has been great coming to a program with a great tradition of excellence," Haddix said. "The kids know the expectations of playing at a high level every game."
Smith guided the Rebels for 19 seasons in two different stints with the last one running from 2014 to 2019. Those teams finished 211-45 with six state championships in eight appearances. Boyle County beat Highlands, 44-10 in the Class AAA state title game for its fifth consecutive crown in 2003.
But the Bluebirds ended that run with a 22-6 win in the Class AAA state championship game the following year. Highlands eventually broke Boyle County's record with its sixth consecutive state title in 2012 with a 47-0 win over Collins in the Class 4A state title game at Western Kentucky University. Smith took an assistant coach position at the University of Kentucky after that season and stayed there until 2012.
The Rebels are 43-3 since the start of 2017 winning the Class 3A state championship in 2017 with only one loss in each of the previous three seasons. Boyle County lost 21-20 to Johnson Central in the Class 4A title game last year.
The Bluebirds are trying to rise back up to that dominant level where they've been in the past. They lost 27-14 at home against Simon Kenton to open the season mostly because the Pioneers had two long plays for a touchdown. Highlands Head Coach Brian Weinrich said the main identity for the Bluebirds is to play fast and the coaching staff saw a lot of that in the win over Ryle.
"They came out (Monday) and were really focused on what we have to work on," Weinrich said. "It's still a lot about us right now. It's a little different this week because we've each played two games. They're really similar to us in terms of what they're doing. It's nice because we've seen a lot of the stuff. They're obviously going to have their own wrinkles. It's going to be a nice challenge."
But the Highlands 3-5 defense did not allow a long touchdown last week. The likes of senior defensive lineman Vance Moore and sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson penetrated the Ryle backfield a lot in the victory. Moore gave Highlands cushion late in the victory with a safety.
"I'm so proud of the guys buying into our keys," said Nick Behymer, Highlands linebackers coach. "That is the key - trusting what we're supposed to do and gaining that game-speed experience. You can do so many things in practice. It's just different between playing in practice and playing in the game. Week one to week two was a huge difference. You could see it on the film. You saw it in the game."
The Bluebirds have allowed 315 yards rushing and 339 passing for averages of 157.5 and 169.5 per game respectively and an average of 327 total per game. But they have five takeaways on the season for a plus-two in the takeaway/giveaway ratio. Sam Robinson had an interception and fumble recovery against Ryle and senior defensive back Dominic Robinson had his team-high second interception of the season. Senior linebacker Mason South has the team's other fumble recovery.
The Rebels have put up 282 yards rushing and 541 passing in the first two games for averages of 141 rushing and 270.5 passing for a total average of 411.5 yards out of a Spread offense that features one running back and four wide receivers. Senior quarterback Jagger Gillis is leading the way with 26-of-38 pass completions for 517 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. He has filled in the graduation of last year's quarterback in Reed Lanter nicely. Gillis also has 10 carries for 26 yards and a touchdown.
"I think any football coach will tell you we are nowhere near where we need to be," Haddix said. "(We) got to clean up some simple mistakes. That's with linemen and skill players as well."
Highlands may not have faced Gillis last year. But the Bluebirds did face him two years ago in the Class 5A playoffs. Gillis played quarterback at Anderson County before transferring to Boyle County this year. As a sophomore in 2018, Gillis completed 4-of-7 passes for 47 yards when Highlands held off Anderson County, 14-10 in the second round before losing 36-0 to Covington Catholic in the region championship game.
"You have to stay disciplined not to jump (toward the quarterback) if he looks like he's on the run," said Daniel Buchanan, Highlands senior defensive back. "You have to make sure you stick to your man. Then when he does run, you have to rally to it and stop him."
Gillis' top two targets have been senior wide receiver Luke Sheperson with five catches for 167 yards and three touchdowns and junior wide receiver Cole Lanter with seven catches for 137 yards. Seven different Rebels have at least one reception this year.
Senior running back Will McDaniel has touched the ball on 37-of-85 Boyle County rushes and catches this season for nearly 44 percent. McDaniel has 31 rushes for 157 yards and three touchdowns and six catches for 70 yards averaging just more than five yards per carry. He had 21 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns against Highlands last year for an average of just more than 3.7 yards per touch.
Boyle County has allowed just 110 yards rushing and 347 passing for averages of 55 and 173.5 yards per game respectively and 228.5 total. But CAL did pass for 294 yards last week. Haddix said the Rebels employ different fronts and coverages defensively.
At linebacker, Sheperson leads the Rebels with 11 tackles with eight assisted with two tackles for a loss including a quarterback sack. Junior linebacker Dalton Stone also has 11 tackles.
The Rebels have recovered two fumbles and picked off two passes defensively. Gillis and junior defensive back Cash Logan have one pick each. Senior linebacker Coleman Clark and junior linebacker Collin Tiller have one fumble recovery each.
Highlands rode the read-option out of the shotgun to victory against Ryle. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon made quick and precise decisions with running backs such as senior Mason South, sophomore Dawson Hosea and Junior Griffin Richter. The offensive line made huge strides and the wide receivers did well blocking downfield.
Noon has 298 yards rushing on 46 carries and three touchdowns for an average of about 6.5 yards per carry. He had a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to put a jolt into the Highlands offense. Seven players have rushes for Highlands including five with at least 13 carries. South is second on the team with 18 carries for 87 yards for an average of just under five per carry.
But the Bluebirds know they made more diversity offensively out of the Spread offense to beat Boyle County. Noon completed just one pass to sophomore Brennan Kelsay for five yards in the fourth quarter on a quick out to the left.
"Teams are going to try to stop what you do best," Weinrich said. "That's what we're going to try to do for them. Offensively, you have to have answers. That's what we've been working on in practice. That's the way it's designed. If they take away one thing, you have to be prepared to do something else. When you get into a game, you have to take what they give you."
Highlands had success running short routes and screens in the loss against Simon Kenton. Kelsay leads the Bluebirds with four catches for 40 yards. Richter has two catches for 56 yards.
"We're still working hard," said Oliver Harris, Highlands junior wide receiver. "We're trying to become a balanced offense. It just takes a lot of reps in practice getting used to each other."
Noon has completed 7-of-14 passes for 67 yards. Senior quarterback Jake Fahlbusch has completed 7-of-15 passes for 94 yards and a touchdown to South. Weinrich said both will again see at quarterback Friday.
"They have two good quarterbacks who are dangerous with their legs and arms," Haddix said. "That makes it tough on any defense when your QB is a running threat."
Haddix said the Rebels are looking forward to the challenge of playing at David Cecil Memorial Stadium. Boyle County is 0-2 lifetime in Fort Thomas. Highlands beat Boyle County, 52-31 on Aug. 17, 2012 to open that season in the last meeting in Fort Thomas.
Haddix played once at Cecil Memorial as a player in the St. Luke Hospitals Champions Bowl on Aug. 25, 2001 as a junior at Breathitt County. The Bobcats played the Beechwood Tigers and lost 37-8 before Highlands lost 30-0 to Male in a game suspended at halftime.
Highlands leads the series against Boyle County, 4-3. The Rebels beat the Bluebirds, 30-0 in Danville last year.