|Bluebirds Unable to Cash in with Second-Half Scoring Opportunities|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd hauls in an 11-yard touchdown pass in the second half. Lloyd had five catches for 63 yards and two touchdowns.|
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The Highlands Bluebirds football team may not have had its best week of practice leading into the road battle Friday.
But the Bluebirds still had three opportunities to at least take the lead in the second half against the Cincinnati Archbishop McNicholas Rockets in a battle of 3-0 teams. But the offense could not come through allowing McNicholas to escape with a 27-21 victory.
"This is a game I think is on me," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "I think I put us in a bad situation when I gave us Monday (Labor Day) off. We'll see maybe long-term for the sake of the season it will be the best thing. But for this week, it turned out obviously to be the wrong call."
The Bluebirds lost despite outgaining the Rockets, 382-244 in total offense including 236-101 on the ground. Highlands junior quarterback Charlie Noon led a valiant effort completing 14-of-19 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Noon also had 151 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown averaging 7.55 yards per carry. Senior wide receiver Clayton Lloyd led Highlands with five catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
"My hat's off to Highlands. Their kids play so hard," said Mike Orlando, McNicholas Head Coach. "It was a battle. It's a shame somebody has to lose. We are bend, but don't break. We talk about bleeding slow. They gashed us a couple times. But when it mattered, we hunkered in there and made plays. I couldn't be more proud of those guys, especially those guys up front. They were moving the ball on us."
The Highlands 3-4 defense held McNicholas to just 32 yards of total offense in the second half. The Rockets punted on the first possession after going three-and-out. But the Rockets made a 27-14 halftime lead stand.
Highlands scored on its first possession on a 4th-and-9 from the McNicholas 33. Noon rolled to his left and found Lloyd for a touchdown with 7:47 left in the first quarter.
"I thought both teams made plays all night," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "It was a back-and-forth game. Their staff has been together for 11 years and they made some great adjustments in key situations. I'm proud of our guys the way we fought in the second half. Our offensive line got so much better. This overall is going to make us a better football team -- learning how to win these kind of games. It's a loss. But in the long-run, it could be a win in our favor."
But the Rockets found some traction throwing the ball with senior quarterback Pierce Taylor. McNicholas drove the ball 79 yards on 12 plays capping it off when Taylor snuck one yard for a touchdown. Freshman Rollie Garbriel made the first of three extra-point attempts tying the game at seven with 2:33 left in the quarter.
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Taylor completed 12-of-15 passes for 136 yards. Junior running back Ty Snyder finished with 64 yards rushing on 12 carries for just more than five yards per touch.
But Highlands responded with a long and sustained drive. Noon capped it off with a six-yard touchdown run and junior kicker Davis Burleigh made his second of three extra-point attempts to give the Bluebirds a 14-7 advantage.
But the Rockets scored 20 points in the final five minutes of the first half. Sophomore running back Adam Hendrickson started the run with a 12-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 with 4:16 left in the half.
After a Highlands punt, Taylor found Snyder in the flat. Snyder broke several tackles and scampered down the right sideline for a 45-yard touchdown pass putting the Rockets up for good at 21-14 with 2:18 left in the half.
"I was really frustrated with our tackling at halftime," Bob Sphire said. "We have just grinding and working on it. It's all about chopping (opponents) down, wrapping the legs and gator rolling. Every time where we start going back to that youth league stuff where we start tackling high, we don't tackle. If nothing else comes out of this game, I hope they finally realize that youth league stuff doesn't fly anymore. I have to get that fixed. We're just going to work to get better."
The Bluebirds started to move the ball. But Noon had to come out after a scramble.
With sophomore quarterback Brody Benke unable to play, sophomore Cam Bottom came into the game. The Bluebirds tried to set up a screen pass. But senior defensive back Will Reuss picked off the pass and returned it 64 yards in what turned out to be a difference in the game. The Bluebirds blocked the PAT.
"In games like this, you have to make a play," Orlando said. "You can't just expect to move it up and down the field and grind it out or whatever. We made probably one more play than they did because they made a lot of plays too."
Highlands scored on its first possession of the second half. Noon found Lloyd for an 11-yard touchdown pass trimming the McNicholas lead to 27-21.
"I knew we were going to have to run the ball a lot," Hayden Sphire said. "They're really sound defensively. Their secondary is really good at passing off people in coverage. A lot of those plays we made were kind of Charlie making plays with his feet, which was something he was going to have to do for us to have a chance. I knew this was going to have to be a grind-it-out type of game. We did a lot of good games. Football games are usually one in six plays within 160 plays. I don't know how those six plays fell. Maybe they made four. We made two. They made the ones they mattered in the end."
The Bluebirds stopped the Rockets after the drove into Highlands territory. Highlands drove into McNicholas territory with Noon returning in the second half three times.
The Bluebirds had the ball at the McNicholas 8 on 4th-and-4 in the fourth quarter. Noon tried to run for it but was tripped up a few yards short.
Highlands will try to bounce back at home Friday against the Ryle Raiders (3-1).