|Bluebirds Learning to Win Close Games|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd hauls in a touchdown pass against Dixie Heights.|
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The next step in the process in the return to the level of dominance long-time followers want to see is learning how to win games like this like Head Coach Bob Sphire said.
Similar to the 27-21 loss at Cincinnati McNicholas two weeks ago in nearly an identical score, the Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-3 overall) had chances to tie the game in the fourth quarter or even take the lead. But the Bluebirds again could not come through in a 28-21 loss on the road against the Dixie Heights Colonels (3-2) on Friday.
People may look at the fourth quarter. But Sphire said the Bluebirds need to come out of the gates faster. Dixie Heights outgained Highlands just 370-361. The red Colonels used their size up front early to dominate the trenches putting up 247 yards rushing to just 14 for the Bluebirds.
Highlands ran 50 plays averaging just more than seven yards per play and Dixie Heights ran 74 averaging five per play. The Colonels had 20 first downs to 15 for the Bluebirds and converted 10-of-17 on third down for 59 percent and their lone fourth down try. Highlands converted 5-of-10 on third down for 50 percent.
"We put ourselves in that hole early," Sphire said. "We were a little more than a speed bump the first quarter and a half. But our guys just kept playing, kept trying to fight. We're a well-conditioned football team. We're just not a big, strong football team. So as the game went on, our conditioning allowed us to start outplaying them. We tried everything early. I knew it was going to be tough. We're playing a killer schedule. I have to do a better job getting them ready early in the game."
Dixie Heights senior quarterback Logan Landers led the way for Dixie Heights running the ball 16 times for 114 yards for an average of just more than seven yards per carry. Landers also completed 13-of-19 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown pass.
Highlands stayed in the game with a strong passing game, especially on the deep routes. Dixie Heights lined up with a number of players near the line of scrimmage determined to limit the scrambling abilities of Highlands junior quarterback Charlie Noon. The Bluebirds took advantage of that getting others involved. Noon completed 16-of-26 passes for 331 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
"I'm incredibly proud of these kids. I'm honored and privileged to be their coach," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I couldn't be prouder of a group of kids in how they fought (Friday) and how they've fought all season. We're getting better at what we do offensively. Turnovers shot us in the foot. But we had our chances."
The Bluebirds have won games where they've won the turnover battle. In another loss, Highlands did not record a takeaway while giving it away two times.
The Colonels built a 21-7 lead playing power football. Senior running back Pierce Rohlman finished a long and sustained drive with a short three-yard score and junior kicker Noah Koenig booted the first of four point-after touchdown scores to start the game.
But the Bluebirds responded. Senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd burned the Colonels down the field for a 36-yard touchdown catch with 3:10 left in the first quarter. Lloyd led Highlands with five catches for 81 yards.
Dixie Heights scored on its next two drives. Senior Colin Smith scored from nine yards out just five seconds into the second quarter before Landers hit sophomore Brach Rice for 32 yards with 6:33 left in the game.
The Bluebirds did get one score back before halftime. Sophomore wide receiver Carson Class burned the Colonels for a 63-yard touchdown reception and junior kicker Davis Burleigh hit the second of three PATs to make it 21-14 red Colonels.
Highlands tied the game in the third quarter. After completing a long pass to senior Sam Robinson, Noon ran in from four yards out with 4:17 left in the third quarter. Robinson had four catches for 68 yards.
The Colonels went ahead for good with 48.9 seconds in the third quarter following a tight pass interference penalty on Highlands. Landers ran to the right for a 20-yard touchdown.
"Our guys adjusted (well to Dixie's schemes)," Bob Sphire said. "They have a really good quarterback. We just have to learn how to make those plays at key times in those key situations and that's going to come."
The Bluebirds appeared to tie the game at 28 just seven seconds into the fourth quarter. Noon threw in the flats to junior wide receiver Brennan Kelsay. Kelsay then threw down the field to Lloyd. But the refs ruled the second pass as illegal. The Bluebirds later gave the ball back to Dixie Heights losing a fumble.
After receiving the ball back late in the game, Highlands drove down the Dixie Heights 4 in the game's final seconds. The Bluebirds tried to run a fake spike. But Dixie Heights intercepted the ball to end the game.
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"I didn't anticipate the refs stopping the play for about 20 seconds," Hayden Sphire said. "I was anticipating disorganization and then (Dixie Heights) was able to get organized. It is what it is. Obviously, I think we've learned from our past two losses. I thought we were better (Friday). Championships are not won in September. This is getting us ready for district."
Highlands committed seven penalties for 65 yards. Dixie Heights had five for 50 yards.
Highlands takes on Conner (4-2) on Friday to open Class 5A, District 5 action. Game time is 7 p.m.