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Thursday, November 26, 2020

Highlands Hopes to Play Loose in Playoff Rematch at Covington Catholic

Bluebirds Searching for Ways Break Scoreless String Against Arch-Rivals

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands players Dominic Robinson (19), Charlie Noon (1), Charlie Moore (53), Adam Bowman (51), Chase Gordon (75) and Jake Arthur (71) wait on the play call Friday in the playoff win over Conner. The Highlands offensive line has been key to allowing skill position players such as Noon and Robinson do their thing in recent weeks.

Aside from the usual Beat the Colonels chants, the Highlands Bluebirds football team could add another rallying cry this week.

Discover how much bluer the turf is in the end zones at Wooten Field, prevent the hosts from doing it as much and a whole lot more.

Highlands (5-5) earned another shot at the Covington Catholic Colonels (8-1) in Park Hills with a 27-16 win at Conner on Friday to open the Class 5A playoffs. The blue Colonels took out Cooper, 32-8 in the first round of the playoffs in Park Hills. Game time is 7 p.m. Friday.

"There's been a lot of energy, a lot of focus these past few practices," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "It's been very spirited. It's been a good couple days."

Points have been hard to find in recent battles for the Bluebirds during their six-game losing streak against the Colonels. CovCath has outscored Highlands, 227-40 for an average of between 37 and 38 points to between six and seven points during the losing streak including 164-14 in the last five meetings for averages of between 32 and 33 points to between two and three points.

Over the last five games, CovCath has shut out Highlands four times including the three meetings in Park Hills. Overall, the blue Colonels have kept the Bluebirds off the scoreboard at Wooten Field for 166 minutes and two seconds exactly for a span of 13-plus quarters.

The last time Highlands celebrated scoring points at Wooten Field came in the last Highlands win there by a 14-10 score on Oct. 17, 2015 when then-junior running back Grant Murray broke free up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown run with 10:02 remaining in the third quarter and then-senior Jared Dougherty booted the extra-point kick. That came during current CovCath Head Coach Eddie Eviston's first season there and AJ Mayer's sophomore season as starting quarterback.

But since the start of 2017, CovCath has gone 52-2 including a 44-1 stretch in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that culminated in two Class 5A state championships and a runner-up finish led by AJ Mayer, now a quarterback for the  Miami (Ohio) RedHawks and his younger brother Michael, who plays tight end for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Colonels have recorded 16 shutouts since the start of 2017 including six in 2019 during the undefeated state championship run.

There is a silver lining for the Bluebirds. They put up 254 yards of total offense against the Colonels in the 42-0 defeat in Park Hills on Oct. 16 out of the Spread offense. But they could not finish drives. That included a missed field goal and time running out on the Bluebirds in the first half when they drove to the CovCath 8 with 14 seconds left. The Bluebirds could not spike the ball in time to run another play.

Highlands sophomore quarterback Charlie Noon recorded his career-high with 191 yards passing in the loss at CovCath completing 15-of-27 passes and one interception that ended a drive deep in Colonel territory. Noon also rushed for 53 yards on 19 carries for an average of between two and three yards.

The Highlands wide receivers earned some separation from the CovCath defensive backs in that game, which had been an issue in recent years forcing the Bluebirds to become one-dimensional. Sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay had six catches for 73 yards in that game with senior running Mason South and junior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd recording three catches each for 40 and 32 yards respectively.

Highlands has been outscored, 264-219 this year for averages of between 26 and 27 to nearly 20 points per game this year. The offense has put up 1,715 rushing and 994 passing for averages of between 171 and 172 rushing and between 99 and 100 passing.

Noon is on the verge of hitting the 1,000-yard milestone both running and passing the football. Noon has rushed for 941 yards on 177 carries for an average of between five and six yards per carry and nine touchdowns. Noon has completed 65-of-123 passes for 888 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions.

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"We've gotten better and better each week,"
Weinrich said. "Every year, we're tweaking here and there. You have to do what (the players) are comfortable with. You can be the smartest guy in the world. But you're not out there. Those guys are out there."

The Highlands offensive line has blocked well for the most part and may need the game of the season to pull off the win Friday. Senior running back Mason South is second on the team with 334 yards rushing on 58 carries and a touchdown for an average of between five and six yards per game and senior Dominic Robinson is third with 144 yards on 29 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between four and five yards per carry. Senior Jake Fahlbusch has 133 yards on 41 carries and three touchdowns for an average of between three and four yards per touch. Highlands junior running back Griffin Richter returned to the field against Conner on Friday.

"It's definitely going to be a good challenge," said Jake Arthur, Highlands senior offensive lineman. "We have to do what we've been coached to do all year. It's about being prepared. You can't do anything fast unless you know what you're doing."

But 13 different players have caught passes for the Bluebirds this year. Junior wide receiver Jake Welch has 10 catches for a team-high 251 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Brennan Kelsay had 14 receptions for 142 yards and a touchdown. Junior wide receiver Oliver Harris and South have eight catches each for 110 and 101 yards respectively. Sophomore wide receiver Ryan DeBurger has had one big catch in each of the past two games for a combined 75 yards.

CovCath lost 29-28 at Lexington Catholic (5-2) to conclude the regular season Nov. 6. The Knights converted a two-point conversion late to win the game. But early on, the Colonels struggled in tight wins at Dixie Heights (21-14) and at home against Beechwood (19-17). In those wins, Dixie Heights junior quarterback Logan Landers completed 22-of-42 passes for 182 yards and Beechwood senior quarterback Cam Hergott, who spent his freshman year at Highlands in 2017 before transferring, completed 13-of-18 passes for 196 yards.

The Colonels have outscored opponents, 310-78 this year for averages of between 34 and 35 points to between eight and nine points per game with three shutouts. Out of the Spread offense, CovCath has run for 1,546 yards and passed for 1,583 for balanced averages of between 171 and 172 rushing and between 175 and 176 passing per game.

Third-year starting quarterback Caleb Jacob has led the Colonels with  412 yards rushing on 86 attempts and 10 touchdowns for an average of between four and five yards per carry. Senior running back Owen Nally is second with 359 yards on 86 carries and seven touchdowns for an average of between four and five yards per touch.

Jacob has completed 108-of-182 passes for 1,581 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions to 15 different receivers. Senior wide receiver Ethan Reardon leads the way with 36 catches for 646 yards and four touchdowns with senior wide receiver Ryan Schneider catching 19 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns.

"At this time of the year, coaches say they know what we do. We know what they do," Weinrich said. "We have to execute. It comes down to one-on-ones. You have to win your spot. The defensive line has to control gaps and fly to the ball."

CovCath ran for 347 yards on 43 carries for an average of just more than eight yards per play in the win over the Bluebirds on Oct. 16. Jacob rushed for 106 and two touchdowns and Schneider had 72. The Bluebirds stunted up front, but could not consistently penetrate the backfield. But the Bluebirds limited the big plays against Conner on Friday in the 27-16 win to open the Class 5A playoffs. Jacob also threw for 99 yards.

"We were talking about that (Saturday) morning. It all starts with the front six," said Jason Noe, Highlands senior defensive back. "They have to get low and wrap up. The secondary has to come up and fill (gaps), hit (the CovCath running backs) and bring them down when they make contact. I just tell (teammates) to take it play by play and trust the guy next to you, trust your keys. If you're doing that, everything should go how it's supposed to."

Highlands has allowed 1,643 yards rushing and 1,018 passing this season for averages of between 164 and 165 rushing and between 101 and 102 passing per game. But Highlands senior defensive back Bryson Cody picked off two passes in the playoff win at Conner while the Bluebirds did not turn the ball over. That has been a key to beating CovCath in the past.

The Bluebirds have picked off 13 passes this year and recovered three fumbles out of the 3-5 defense. Sophomore linebacker Sam Robinson had two of each for the Bluebirds. Noe has a team-high three interceptions. Dominic Robinson also has two picks at defensive back.

CovCath has allowed 851 yards rushing and 1,045 passing out of the 3-4 defensive scheme for averages of between 94 and 95 rushing and just more than 116 passing. Cooper ran for 205 yards in the CovCath playoff win Friday.

Senior Benjamin Dickhaus leads the Colonels defensively with 52 tackles including 41 solo and nine tackles for a loss including 6.5 quarterback sacks. The Colonels have 45 tackles for a loss including 16 sacks on the season.

CovCath also had nine interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Schneider has a team-high two interceptions for the Colonels. Schneider returned one of them 80 yards for a touchdown in the 45-7 win at Boone County on Oct. 2.

Highlands is still searching for the 50th win in school history against CovCath. The Bluebirds are 49-23 all-time against the Colonels. But the last Highlands win came in the Class 5A region finals by a 44-22 score on Nov. 20, 2015 in Fort Thomas.

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