PREP FOOTBALL: Highlands presents a mountain-sized challenge for John Hardin

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By Chuck Jones

The John Hardin Bulldogs realize the stakes couldn’t be higher than they will be Saturday night. They understand the mountain-sized challenge in front of them.

The Bulldogs, ranked fifth in the latest Associated Press Class 5-A poll, host the Fort Thomas Highlands Bluebirds, the top-ranked team in 4-A, at 6 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium. The Bluebirds have won 22 state championships, including the 2009 5-A title over John Hardin.

“It’s a huge test for us,” John Hardin senior Patrick Anderson said. “They are a really good team. They play great defense. Everybody gets to the ball. They have a good offense. It’s a challenge for us.”

Challenge might be an understatement. The Bluebirds opened the season with a 47-17 victory over University Christian (Jacksonville, Fla.) on ESPN. They’ve followed with convincing wins over Campbell County and Lexington Bryan Station.

“They’re one of the top teams in the state,” John Hardin coach Chad Lewis said. “They’re the second-best team in the state to be quite frank. They’ve won 20-plus championships and we’re a school 13 years old. They have all that tradition. It’s quite a test for us Saturday night.”

Highlands has a high-powered offensive attack. Senior quarterback Drew Houliston, a first-year starter, has thrown for 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has completed 71.1 percent of his passes and been intercepted only once in 76 attempts.

Houliston has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Junior Jensen Feggins leads the team in catches with 10, while senior Zach Harris has a team-best 174 receiving yards. Four receivers have seven or more catches, five have more than 100 yards and eight have caught a touchdown.

Harris is also the team’s leading rusher with 298 yards and seven scores on 34 carries. Senior Jaylen Hayes has 68 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

“They are a spread team that likes to do both, run and pass,” Lewis said. “(Harris) is a very good running back. He’s a north and south runner. He’s the guy that makes them go. Their quarterback is very good. They bring in a wave of receivers on every play. You can’t key on one guy. They have guys all over the field that can make plays.”

While Houliston, Harris and others get most of the attention, Lewis said Highlands’ line is one of the best he’s seen.

“What sets them apart is their offensive and defensive lines,” Lewis said. “They are very well-coached. They work like a glove, like coaches like to say. They are in unison and they work so well together. Every team has good players, but what sets the teams like Highlands and Trinity apart from everyone is their offensive line. That’s the biggest advantage they have over teams.”

After a subpar defensive performance against Louisville DeSales, the Bulldogs limited Meade County to five first downs and 107 yards. They had one sack and six tackles for a loss.

It was a step in the right direction, according to senior defensive tackle Matt Elam.

“We’re getting back there,” Elam said. “We played with a chip on our shoulder after the DeSales game. We took some of that out on Meade County. We’re getting better. We want to take another step against Highlands and play another good game.”

The Bluebirds, who are giving up 23 points and 327 yards per game, only allowed 25 points in their first two games before Bryan Station scored 44. Most of those points came after they had built a huge lead.

John Hardin’s offense hasn’t hit on all cylinders like in previous years. The Bulldogs are averaging only 24 points and 309.3 yards a game, both of which are down compared to other seasons. There are several factors like turnovers, problems in the passing game and a ground game only getting 5 yards per carry.

“We’re not clicking, but we’re getting better,” John Hardin senior Khalil Frazier said. “Our chemistry is getting better and guys know where they need to be and go. We have to get better at blocking and holding our blocks. We’re going to continue to work hard to get there. We need to bring our ‘A’ game and do what we usually do.”

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