The first home game tends to bring a lot of excitement, especially against a county rival.
It especially helps that the Highlands Bluebirds football team is 2-0 playing the type of electrifying football long-time followers are used to seeing. Highlands hopes to put together another nice showing if not better against the Campbell County Camels (1-1) on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m. at David Cecil Memorial Stadium.
"I think everyone's excited to get a chance to get in front of the home folks in a real football game, not just a scrimmage or Blue/White game," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "We're excited for the kids. They only get four home games this year and in COVID world, nothing is every guaranteed that you're going to get all four of those so we're really looking forward to this one."
Campbell County enters the game off a 34-13 loss to Woodford County in Alexandria. The Camels started the season with a 21-0 blanking of Class 1A 2020 state semifinalist Newport Central Catholic.
A big reason for the 2-0 start with a 21-18 win over Bowling Green and a 53-38 shoot-out win at Simon Kenton for the Blue and White is turnovers where the Bluebirds own a plus-five mark. The Bluebirds have picked off four passes, recovered two fumbles and scored two touchdowns off them. Highlands sophomore Carson Class returned a Simon Kenton fumble 30 yards for touchdown on a lateral. The Pioneers picked off a Highlands pass in the end zone for the lone giveaway for the Bluebirds on the season.
The Bluebirds intercepted three passes and recovered one fumble against Bowling Green. Highlands junior linebacker Sam Robinson picked off two passes in that game returning one 30 yards for a touchdown.
"That's been huge," Sphire said. "We've taken care of the ball and we forced turnovers. In fact, that defensive touchdown the other night is the difference in that game."
The Highlands Spread offense benefitted from the return of junior quarterback Charlie Noon against Simon Kenton. The Bluebirds put up 600 yards offensively on 64 plays for an average of just under 10 yards per play. Noon, who also had some snaps in the secondary on defense, completed 22-of-37 passes for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Noon also had 13 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown averaging between 12 and 13 yards per touch.
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Highland senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd had two touchdowns for 47 yards against Simon Kenton. Sophomore Brody Benke had three catches for 34 yards and a touchdown. Senior Oliver Harris and sophomore Davis Hinegardner had two catches each for 13 and 40 yards respectively.
"We've been working on our routes pretty much every weekday since the Spring," said Paxton Porter, Highlands senior wide receiver/linebacer. "We work on our cuts every day, coming back to the ball and working hard."
Highlands Offensive Coordinator Hayden Sphire said he felt the offense missed out on some scoring opportunities. He said that it is a matter of breaking tackles in open space and improving on executing their plays offensively.
Highlands has put up 805 yards in total offense for about 403 per game with 559 passing and 246 on the ground for averages of just more than 186 passing and an even 123 rushing. Noon leads Highlands rushing the ball. Hayden Sphire said Noon will still rush the ball. But the coaching staff does not want Noon carrying the ball 20 to 25 times per game and taking more hits.
"We do have to get more out of our running backs. There's no doubt about it," Hayden Sphire said. "But it's not just on the running backs. It starts with a lot of things. We have to be better up front on our combos. Now I think we've gotten a lot better and I think we're starting to kind of put things together. But we have to have guys step up, blow guys off the ball and create holes for our running backs."
Highlands will face a 3-4 Campbell County defense that has allowed 287 yards rushing and 298 passing on the season for averages of 143.5 rushing and 149 passing. Woodford County rushed for 256 and passed for 157 yards for a total of 413 yards in the win Friday in Alexandria.
Junior Zach Funston leads Campbell County with 17 tackles. Junior Mitch McElroy, sophomore Nathan Smith and senior cornerback Raymond Hodge follow with 11 each. Junior Ayden Bauwens has a team-high two tackles for a loss.
"They're going to bring the fight to you," Hayden Sphire said. "They're not going to sit around and wait for you to bring it to them. They run to the football hard. They're pretty fundamentally sound defensively."
Campbell County does have three interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the season. Smith had two picks and returned them 61 yards.
The 3-4 defense held down the fort in the second half of the win over Bowling Green. But the Pioneers put up 596 yards of total offense with 263 on the ground and 333 passing. Highlands did hold down the Simon Kenton offense until the Pioneers figured some things out schematically in the second quarter. Bob Sphire said the Bluebirds hope to improve pursuing the ball this week.
"You rob Peter to pay Paul," Bob Sphire said. "We cut into some of our pursuit drill time to add more tackling station time and I think we lost a little bit of our pursuit edge. It's a process. We got a little of good physical work in (Monday). That was a real point of emphasis. My number one point in my scouting report is we need to combat, tackle and pursue."
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Campbell County also runs a Spread offense. The Camels have rushed for 253 yards and passed for 138 for average of 126.5 rushing and 119 passing. Senior running back Camden Abell leads the Camels with 142 yards rushing on 37 carries for an average of just under four yards per carry. Campbell County will return a tight end from injury this week.
"They're a downhill, run physical football team," Bob Sphire said. "They're going to basically line up shoe to shoe with their offensive linemen. They're going to go unbalanced. They're going to do things to try to turn into a backstreet brawl."
Campbell County ran a two tight end scheme against Highlands two years ago. But the Bluebirds made the adjustments against it. Junior quarterback Keegan Hill has completed 9-of-25 passes for 138 yards and four interceptions. Campbell County's leading wide receiver is junior Creed Marr with five catches for 111 yards.
"It's about everyone flying to the ball even the people on the other side of the field," said Mason Welsch, Highlands senior linebacker. "Everyone needs to be hustling, wrapping up and that should fix it. We need to not think too much. If you read your keys and (the ball carrier) comes at you, we need to take him on. If he goes (away), just go with him."
Some games across the state have been cancelled because of the Coronavirus 2019 precautions. The Bluebirds hope not to be the team that has to call off a game because of the pandemic. Bob Sphire said the is doing shorter meetings, taking periodic breaks and wearing masks if not working out or eating. Bob Sphire also said the direct contact time between two players is minimal.
Highlands is 57-10 all-time against Campbell County. The Bluebirds have won seven of the eight meetings since the series resumed in 2013 including the last four. The teams did not play between 2005 and 2012.