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PREP FOOTBALL: Highlands holds on over John Hardin, 33-26 (09/15)

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By Chuck Jones

Don’t mention moral victories to the John Hardin Bulldogs. It’s not part of their vocabulary. The only thing that matters to the Bulldogs is actual wins.

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Although it had a spirited effort against the top-ranked team in Class 4-A, John Hardin’s comeback bid in the fourth quarter came up short, falling to Fort Thomas Highlands, 33-26 on Saturday night at Bulldog Stadium.

“Like the coaches said, it’s a moral victory, but we’re not into moral victories,” John Hardin senior Patrick Anderson said. “We came out tonight and put it all on the line. Not many people were giving us a chance in this game, but we came out and gave it everything we had.”

The Bulldogs (2-2) got off to a shaky start, falling behind 12-0 in the first quarter. They managed to regroup and then went toe-to-toe with 22-time state champion Highlands for the final three quarters.

“Hands down, it’s our best game of the year,” John Hardin coach Chad Lewis said. “We’re not into moral victories. But we played a great game. We physically got after them. I can’t fault the kids’ effort. They played with heart and they put forth a lot of effort. We just made some silly mistakes that kept points off the board.”

The Bluebirds (4-0) never trailed, but John Hardin pulled within seven points after Anderson’s 2-yard run with 48.2 seconds remaining. The Bulldogs had a chance to recover the onside kick when it hit off a Highlands player, but senior running back Zach Harris pounced on it to secure the victory.

“It’s a good football game between two good teams,” said Highlands coach Dale Mueller, who earned his 300th win. “We blocked and we controlled things up front. Drew (Houlister) threw it great and the receivers did a good job. We have to eliminate the turnovers.”

John Hardin’s defense bent against the powerful Bluebirds, but never broke. Highlands racked up 361 yards of total offense, but two fumbles kept John Hardin within striking distance.

The Bluebirds fumbled in the second quarter on the John Hardin 13 with a chance to take a 12-point lead. In the fourth quarter, they had a chance to seal the victory until they lost the ball on the Bulldog 3.

“Turnovers play a big part of the game,” John Hardin senior Chris Smith said. “They can play a big role in the game. Turnovers can win or lose you games. That’s something we always want to do as a defense is force turnovers.”

With the defense keeping the Bulldogs in it, the offense, which had struggled in last week’s win over Meade County, began firing on all cylinders for the first time this season.

Anderson completed 17-of-26 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 72 yards on nine carries to help John Hardin’s ground attack, which churned out 271 yards. Anderson said the line deserved credit for the huge offensive night.

“I think we showed a lot of improvement,” John Hardin junior center Jared Givan said. “We’ve been working on the little details to the biggest things. We have a young line, so we’re learning every week. We have to continue working hard.”

Highlands built a 12-0 lead less than 7 minutes in, but two field goals by John Hardin’s Jacob Drexler — one from 34 yards and the other from 28 yards — cut the lead to 12-6 with 7:28 left before halftime.

The Bluebirds, though, stretched the lead to 20-6 on Harris’ 6-yard scoring run with 1:42 remaining in the second quarter after a 52-yard punt return by Jenson Feggins. Harris added the conversion run.

Trailing 27-6, John Hardin put together a 10-play, 74-yard drive capped by junior Elijah Smith’s 10-yard run. Senior fullback Daquan Deville carried the ball seven times for 45 yards on the drive.

Highlands answered when Houliston hit Feggins on a 12-yard scoring strike, but Anderson hooked up with senior Dimitri Cooper on a 41-yard touchdown to get within 33-19 with 8:50 remaining.

After Highlands fumbled, the Bulldogs marched 87 yards on 16 plays with Anderson scoring on a 2-yard keeper. But Highlands was able to hang on after getting the onside kick. Anderson said this could be turned into a positive.

“That’s a confidence booster,” Anderson said. “We were a little down offensively after a bad game against Meade County. This shows us what we’re capable of. We had a good night against a great team. We just have to keep getting better every week, but this shows us the team we can be.”

UP NEXT: John Hardin plays at Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.