Bluebirds Throttle Cougars on Road to Open District Play
|Highlands sophomore offensive lineman Adam Bowman (51) move in for a block against Conner on Saturday. Bowman stepped in huge in the 36-0 Highlands victory. (Img: Ed Harber)|
By G. Michael Graham
Some say it's a coach's dream to have a first half like the Highlands Bluebirds football team did Saturday.
But for this program, Head Coach Brian Weinrich said it's something that should make a good part of the fan base smile. Highlands came out of the gate strong showing the execution and balance on offense the program is known for and an opportunistic defense that kept Conner off the scoreboard.
Highlands (2-2 overall) hit the running clock before halftime building a 36-0 lead over the host Conner Cougars (2-1) in the Class 5A, District 5 opener for Highlands and made that score stand in the second half on its way to the crucial victory. The Bluebirds avenged two losses to the Cougars last year including a 38-28 defeat in the first round of the playoffs in Hebron.
"When you practice hard all week, you come out and you play the way you're capable of playing," Weinrich said. "That's what we expect from our guys."
Conner already played one district game beating Boone County, 40-0 the previous week. Defending state champion Covington Catholic (4-0) leads the district at 2-0 following a 45-7 win over Boone County on Friday. The Rebels are 0-2 in district play and the Cooper Jaguars are 0-1.
Prior to last year, the teams had not played each other since 2006. The Bluebirds last defeated the Cougars, 42-0 in Hebron on Aug. 25 of that season. Highlands improved to 22-4 all-time against the Cougars with the win.
Highlands had 47 plays for 330 yards of total offense for an average of just more than seven yards per play. The Bluebirds recorded 14 first downs and converted 3-of-6 on third down for 50 percent and none of the three times on fourth down.
But despite not converting some on fourth down, the Bluebirds controlled the field position. The Highlands 3-5 defense held Conner's Spread offense to 104 yards on 43 plays for an average of just more than 2.4 per play. The Cougars managed just seven first downs and converted just 2-of-10 on third down for 20 percent and 1-of-2 on fourth down for 50 percent.
"The defense played great," Weinrich said. "The defense came out. They stuffed (the Cougars). They got them off the field punting the ball. We got several turnovers. You can't say enough how the defense was flying around confidently making plays."
Highlands finished plus-three in the turnover battle picking off four passes and recovering a fumble for a touchdown. The Bluebirds lost two fumbles. Highlands senior defensive back and wide receiver Jason Noe had an interception along with senior linebacker Mason South, junior defensive back Will Hartman and junior linebacker Eli La Frange.
Highlands saw sophomore defensive lineman Sam Robinson recover a Conner fumble in the end zone with 9:05 left in the first half after the Bluebirds lost a fumble at the Conner one. Sophomore Davis Burleigh booted his fourth of four extra-point attempts to give Highlands a 28-0 lead at that point in the game.
The passing game clicked in the victory helping the Bluebirds to their best half of the season, which had not been the case in the first three games. Sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon completed 7-of-10 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown.
The Bluebirds saw a number of big plays in the passing game. Noe led Highlands with two catches for 68 yards including a 46-yard touchdown pass just 24 seconds into the second quarter. Junior wide receiver Jacob Welch had a 41-yard reception and South had one for 37 yards.
"It was so gratifying to see the wide receivers have a great night," said Zach Deaton, Highlands wide receivers coach. "They've been working so hard. They did such a great job this week focusing on what they needed to work on. They responded really well. I'm so proud of them. They're proud of each other. They're just going to keep getting better."
Senior wide receiver/defensive back Dominic Robinson showed his talents many ways Friday. Robinson scored on a five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and returned a punt 46 yards for a touchdown with 52.7 seconds left in the first half. Noon ran in the two-point conversion to enforce the running clock after that.
"We just clicked on all cylinders," Noe said. "Everything was working. We were just having a fun time out there."
Noon again led Highlands with 85 yards rushing on 18 carries and a touchdown for an average of just under five yards per carry. But other players had big runs. South had a 30-yard run and junior wide receiver Isaac Surrey had a 15-yard carry.
The Bluebirds took the opening drive down the field to gain the momentum quickly. Noon finished the drive with a 19-yard touchdown with 9:10 left in the first quarter.
The Highlands offensive line continued to grow. Senior Trevor Harms was not able to play. But he did credit sophomore lineman Adam Bowman for stepping in and contributing.
"(Bowman) did an amazing job. He had good snaps, good blocks. He really led the o-line well," Harms said. "The line has been working together well. We do a lot of zone-blocking with double-teaming. We've been doing better with double-teams, getting off the ball and getting to the second level."
Highlands held Conner junior quarterback Alex Castrucci to just 8-of-23 passes for 76 yards. The Cougars had just 28 yards rushing. Conner senior running back Colton Roy had just three yards rushing on four carries and one catch for three yards. Sophomore wide receiver Alijah Thompson had four catches for 56 yards to lead Conner.
The Bluebirds put pressure on the Cougars all game. Sam Robinson had two tackles for a loss and South had one along with LaFrange. Highlands senior defensive linemen Jackson Roy, Conner Shelton and Braden Baioni sacked Castrucci one time each.
"I think we all did well as a whole," Shelton said. "We set each other up for great plays and came out with the win at the end."
Down 28-0, Conner drove into Highlands territory. But Noe picked off a Castrucci pass and returned the ball to the Conner 24. The Bluebirds did not convert on fourth down on that drive. But the defense set up Dominic Robinson's punt return.
The Cougars did drive to the Highlands 6 in the fourth quarter. But on 4th-and-1, LaFrange hit Roy in the backfield with junior linebacker Mason Welsch and senior defensive back Bryson Cody finishing the tackle to give the ball back to Highlands.
"It was a big stop to end the game," Welsch said. "The linebackers did their jobs. The defensive linemen did their jobs. We all did a good job filling in (the hole). It ended up going our way."
Weinrich did say there are some things to clean up before the Boone County Rebels (1-3, 0-2) come to Fort Thomas on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m.