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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Bluebirds Knock off Defending Class 5A State Champions

Bluebirds Capitalize on Four Turnovers in Victory

PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands sophomore Brody Benke stepped in at quarterback helping the Bluebirds knock off the Bowling Green Purples, 21-18 on Saturday. Benke completed 11-of-21 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns.

The Highlands Bluebirds football team ventured south hoping to play loose in the season opener for both teams.

Highlands did that and came away with a huge victory by a 21-18 count over the defending Class 5A state champion Bowling Green Purples in the Rafferty's Bowl on Saturday. The game took place at Western Kentucky University's Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.

The Bluebirds used some explosive plays on offense, did not turn the ball over and a defense that made the Purples earn everything. The Highlands 3-4 defense recorded three interceptions and recovered a fumble in the victory.

"When you play with great effort, great things can happen," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "I'm really proud of our players. They just played with tremendous effort. Since early in August, We've been going since 6 in the morning almost every day. I've probably over-trained them at this point. We were cramping up throughout the whole second half. We just had guys keep coming in and playing. It was 'Next Man up. Next Man up. Next Man up."

Junior linebacker Sam Robinson had two interceptions including a pick-six with senior Isaac Surrey recording the other one. Junior defensive back Adam Dunn recovered a Bowling Green fumble.

Highlands finished with 205 yards of total offense with 50 rushing and 155 passing on 54 plays for an average of between three to four yards of offense. Bowling Green had 295 yards with 91 rushing and 204 passing for an average of just under four yards per play.

"We saw on film they were going to come out aggressive early in the first quarter,"
said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "We knew that was a time to take our shot. If we hit it, we knew we'd have a chance. If we didn't, we'd be in for a long night. We hit it. From there, we played with some momentum the rest of the first half. We got on top and held on at the end."

The Bluebirds saw sophomore Brody Benke step in at quarterback for his first career varsity start since junior Charlie Noon could not play. Benke completed 13-of-23 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 15 carries for 28 yards. Senior wide receiver Jake Welch had four catches for 63 yards.

The Highlands defense kept the pressure on Bowling Green senior quarterback Spencer Newman. Newman completed 21-of-44 passes for the 204 yards and three interceptions. The Purples ran some jet sweeps for minimal gains out of the Spread offense with players like junior wide receiver Augustin Nyembo.

"We were just flying to the ball," said Carson Schwalbach, Highlands junior lineman. "Our whole D-line was playing well. The linebackers were playing great. Our whole defense was wrapping up and making tackles."

Bowling Green scored first when junior Colin Fratus made a 31-yard field goal with 7:47 left in the first quarter. Newman found junior wide receiver Bert Kibawa over the middle. Kibawa broke down the right sideline for a 39-yard scamper to the Highlands 20. 

But the Bluebirds answered in two plays. Benke ran for 17 yards out of a read play before faking and lofting the ball down the right side. Sophomore wide receiver Carson Class ran behind the Bowling Green defense, caught the ball around the BG 32, broke a tackle and ran into the end zone for a 63-yard score. Highlands junior kicker Davis Burleigh made his first of three point-after touchdown tries to put Highlands up for good at 7-3.

"Coming out, I was super nervous," Benke said. "I threw my first varsity pass for a touchdown and that took a lot of pressure off me and I got really comfortable."

The Bluebirds expanded that lead to 21-3 within a minute in the second quarter. Benke found Welch for a 42-yard pass over the middle. Benke then found junior Brennan Kelsay for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 8:19 left in the first half.

"Brody is an upcoming sophomore," Kelsay said. "He's making great passes. He found those hole shots and got me the ball. That was a perfect pass from Brody. (Noon) has been teaching him and he filled in when (Noon) was out."

Two plays later, Highlands pressured Newman into a turnover. Newman fired the ball right to Robinson. Robinson ran 30 yards untouched for the touchdown putting Highlands up 21-3 with 7:40 left in the half.

"I jumped to the quarterback," Robinson said. "Thanks to (Highlands junior linebacker) Noah Hodge hitting (Newman), the ball hit right in my lap and I took it to the house. You always look that ball into your hands then make that play right after."

Bowling Green did have some success running senior Tyler Moore in between the tackles. Moore scored from six yards out with 2:25 left in the first half to trim the margin to 21-10 at halftime. A Highlands horse collar gave Bowling Green a 3rd-and-8 on the drive, which the Purples converted.

Highlands did have a chance to add a field goal after a couple Bowling Green penalties in the waning seconds of the first half. But the field-goal try sailed left.

The Highlands defense held a number of times in the second half. But the Purples made things interesting. Newman found senior tight end Bryer Bice with 5:20 left. The Purples tried for two. But Surrey came off the right edge and sacked Newman leaving the score 21-16 Highlands.

Highlands could not move the ball on its next possession. The staff told Benke to run to the back of the end zone. Benke waited as long as he could before stepping out of bounds for a BG safety with 3:30 left in the third quarter.

That gave Highlands a free kick at its own 20. But Kibawa took the ball from the BG 26 to the Highlands 31 for 43 yards with 3:19 remaining and two timeouts left.

That's when Robinson came through with his second interception of the game giving Highlands the ball at the Highlands 16. Senior linebacker Oliver Harris deflected Newman's pass on the play.

"I think that goes back to his basketball experiences on the press and different things like that," Bob Sphire said of Harris' deflection. "That was kind of a basketball play that he made. That's (Harris) being a smart football player and reacting to the situation. He has great instincts."

The Bluebirds ran off as much time as possible. On 4th-and-2 from the Highlands 24 with 1:58 left in the game, Highlands coaxed a Bowling Green offsides penalty earning the first down. That allowed Highlands to run off the clock to win the game.

Highlands travels to Independence on Friday to take on the Simon Kenton Pioneers (0-1) on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m. The Pioneers opened the season Friday with a 35-29 home loss to the Oldham County Colonels.

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