By G. Michael Graham
It's a thing of beauty watching the read-option offense come together for the Highlands Bluebirds football team.
It has allowed the Bluebirds to go on long and sustained drives out of the shotgun spread offense. Even if they don't score points, they won the field position giving great opportunities for the 3-5 Highlands defense.
Highlands has had its most success with sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon keeping the ball through two games. Noon had 166 yards rushing on 27 carries and two touchdowns for an average of just under 6.14 yards per carry to lead the Bluebirds to a 23-14 non-district road win over the Ryle Raiders on Friday. Both teams are 1-1 on the season.
"When you run it right and the offensive (linemen) block like they did, it turns into big gains and can flip the tide of the game," Noon said. "That's what it did (Friday). We have to stick by our guys and keep building them up."
The Bluebirds rushed for 279 yards total in the victory out of 284 yards of total offense on 74 plays for an average of just under four yards per play. Senior running back Mason South had 59 yards on 13 carries and sophomore running back Dawson Hosea rushed for 40 yards on 11 carries and his first varsity touchdown.
Senior quarterback Jake Fahlbusch and junior running back Griffin Richter also had carries for the Bluebirds. The Bluebirds had both quarterbacks in the backfield at times in the victory.
"That's what's interesting about these first two games. You have nothing to go on really," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "They didn't do anything that we were ready for to be honest with you in the beginning. They were doing stuff we hadn't seen them do on film so it took us a while to kind of get a feel to counter what they were doing. Our guys executed perfectly when it mattered. We have a lot to clean up. That's where we are week two of the season."
Highlands saw the quarterbacks attempt three passes each. But the only completion came in the fourth quarter when Noon completed a quick out to sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay to the left for five yards. Noon said more of those will be completed once the team nails the timing and accuracy of those throws.
The starters on the offensive line are mostly seniors. But several including Chase Gordon made just their second varsity start.
"We just got into our huddle and we knew we all needed to do better so we got that mindset that we needed to work extra hard," Gordon said. "It's not an on and off switch. As soon as we get into that mindset, there's no coming out of it until the game is over."
The Highlands defense dug in after the first couple possessions against the Ryle spread offense that included some offset looks in the backfield out of the shotgun. The Raiders finished with 183 yards on 62 plays for an average of just under three per play.
The Bluebirds had three takeaways and lost two fumbles offensively. Sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson recovered one fumble and picked off a pass. Senior defensive back Dominic Robinson also had an interception for his second of the season.
Ryle rushed for 97 yards and passed for 86. The likes of Sam Robinson and senior defensive lineman Vance Moore spent a lot of time in the Raider backfield.
Raider senior quarterback Bradyn Lyons completed 7-of-24 passes for that total. Senior wide receiver Jackson McGinnis led the way with three catches for 29 yards. Senior running back Mathis Cusick led Ryle rushing with 47 yards on nine carries.
The Raiders converted just 1-of-10 on third down for 10 percent and 1-of-4 on fourth for 25 percent and had three penalties for 25 yards. The Bluebirds converted 7-of-18 on third down for 39 percent and 1-of-3 on fourth down for 33 percent and had five penalties for 46 yards.
Ryle built an 11-0 lead in the first half. Senior kicker Franklin Rogers hit a 30-yard field goal in the first quarter before the Raiders drove down and scored when junior Gavin Ruark dove in from two yards out. Ryle then scored on a two-point conversion run on a fake point-after touchdown score.
That Ruark touchdown marked the first touchdown the Raiders had scored on the Bluebirds since their last win in the series of 49-27 in Fort Thomas on Sept. 8, 2017. Highlands beat Ryle, 40-3 in 2018 in Union and 27-0 in Fort Thomas last year.
But lightning in a bottle struck quickly when Noon ran to his right and bolted down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown for the longest play from scrimmage so far for Highlands. Sophomore Davis Burleigh added his first of three point-after touchdown kicks to trim the margin to 11-7.
Sam Robinson recovered a fumble in Ryle territory and Highlands capitalized. Noon broke free for a 12-yard touchdown run to put the Bluebirds up 14-11 at halftime.
"After they scored, our coaches got real mad at us and we flipped it around real quick," Sam Robinson said. "We got a bunch of big turnovers and that helped us a lot. We knew what we had to do to win this game. We knew it was going to be a tough battle. We fought real hard and got a big victory."
Hosea gave the Bluebirds some breathing room in the third quarter. He scored from 14 yards out to put Highlands up 21-11.
"We got better with our confidence. We got better with our execution," Weinrich said. "In that first game (a 27-14 loss to Simon Kenton), we were trying so hard to make sure we were doing everything perfect and we did a good job with our assignments. We just needed extra effort to make the plays work. Once your confidence grows, you can play fast. You start blocking fast, running fast and making fast decisions across the board. It was fun to see our guys get better this week."
A Rogers 26-yard field goal trimmed the margin to 21-14 in the fourth quarter. But the Bluebirds sustained a drive and pinned the Raiders at their own five following a pooch punt.
After Sam Robinson recorded a tackle for a loss, the Raiders threw an incomplete pass. But the Bluebirds penetrated and Moore sacked Lyons for the safety to make the final score.
Ryle tried an onside kick to the Highlands right on the free kick. But Highlands junior Will Hartman grabbed the ball and fell to the ground. After the teams exchanged possessions, Highlands ran out the clock for the win.
"I was expecting contact just by how slow the ball was going," Hartman said. "You just have to make sure once you get the ball in your hands, you don't let go. That's all that matters."
Highlands welcomes a juggernaut to Fort Thomas next week when the 2019 Class 4A state runner-up Boyle County Rebels (2-0) come north for the first time since 2012. Game time is 7:30 p.m.