|Bluebirds Had No Answers for Thompson, Castrucci|
|PHOTO: Ed Harber. Highlands sophomore Brody Benke (8) makes a move in the 21-13 loss against Conner. Benke made his return after not being able to play in the last few games.|
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The Highlands Bluebirds football team (3-4 overall) knew it had to first stop the read runs of its opponent.
The Conner Cougars (5-2 overall, 2-0 district) had much success this season running the ball with the dynamic duo of junior running back Alijah Thompson and senior quarterback Alex Castrucci. The Bluebirds could not stop them in a tough 21-13 loss in their first Class 5A, District 5 game at David Cecil Memorial Stadium on Friday.
|Orangetheory Fitness, Newport Pavilion.|
"(Conner) deserved to win that game and we didn't deserve to win that game even if somehow we'd have won it," said Bob Sphire, Highlands Head Coach. "Mentally or whatever, we were not sharp at all. I'm really disappointed that we made that many mental mistakes in the game. We made poor decisions at times. I even catch myself trying to create plays for them as a caller. You can't manufacture for them. They just have to make plays. We practiced well during the week then they go out there like they're really, really tight, like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. They just need to go play."
Sphire admitted he's not used to this. He couldn't recall a time when any of the five teams he's been the head coach of have lost four in a row. Sphire has been a head coach since 1989. The Bluebirds last lost four in a row in weeks three through six in 2017 following a 2-0 start after losing seven in a row during the dreadful 3-8 campaign in 2016.
"It's not about me. It's about us getting off the snide again," Sphire said. "I'm disappointed for them. I'm disappointed for the program. But we're not going to give in to disappointment."
Castrucci had 30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns averaging just more than four yards per carry and Thompson ran for 113 on 29 carries and a score averaging just under four yards per touch. Thompson has 714 yards on 121 carries and 12 touchdowns for an average of just under six yards per carry on the season and Castrucci has 586 yards on 93 carries and 10 touchdowns for an average of just more than six per carry.
The Bluebirds did stop them in the backfield some. But for the most part, Thompson and Castrucci ventured around blocks and even drove a few more yards after contact allowing the Cougars to control the clock.
The Cougars outgained the Bluebirds, 280-206 in total offense in a battle of spread offenses and 3-4 defenses. That included a 238-116 total on the ground. Highlands only had 33 yards of total offense in the second half.
Highlands did record its first takeaway since the 42-7 win over Campbell County four weeks ago. Junior linebacker Sam Robinson recovered a Conner fumble at the Highlands 6 with 9:57 left in the game.
The Bluebirds tried some different things on offense. That included seeing sophomore Brody Benke at quarterback and moving junior Charlie Noon to running back.
That combination gave the Bluebirds a spark in the second quarter. Down 7-0 after Thompson's 1-yard touchdown run, Benke and Noon led the Bluebirds down the field. Benke then found sophomore wide receiver Carson Class for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left and junior Davis Burleigh booted the point-after touchdown. But the Bluebirds did not move the ball consistently outside that drive.
"It was the game plan we had all week," said Hayden Sphire, Highlands Offensive Coordinator. "I told both Brody and Charlie now Brody was healthy, I wanted to start getting him back in the flow. I told them both (Benke) was at least going to play a series in the second quarter because he's going to need to play at some point most likely. It just so happened we started out not great. (Benke) came in, gave us a little spark. We were able to get Charlie in space at receiver."
The Bluebirds came out and stopped the Cougars on the first drive of the second half. That's when senior linebacker Isaac Surrey blocked a Conner punt and picked it up going into the end zone for a touchdown. The conversion pass failed leaving Highlands up 13-7.
But Conner went up for good at 14-13 with 4:22 left in the third quarter after Castrucci scored on a 12-yard touchdown run. Castrucci added his second touchdown run with 5:18 left in the game.
The Bluebirds had one last chance to tie the game in the game's final minutes. But Highlands fumbled the ball on a hook-and-lateral with 1:58 left in the game allowing Conner to run the clock out.
"We just didn't execute," Hayden Sphire said. "We've turned the ball over a lot in the past few games. We're not doing our job of taking care of the ball. Credit Conner. (The Cougars) did what they had to do to win the game. We didn't."
Highlands plays at Boone County (3-4) on Friday. Game time is 7 p.m.