BOWLING GREEN, Ky - Saturday’s Kentucky Class 4A state championship game was Hoosiers, Rudy, and Rocky Balboa all rolled into one, but not even Hollywood could come up with a script quite like this.
The same two teams, the Highlands Bluebirds and the Collins Titans, met here in this game one year ago. That time around it was Highlands that walked away 47-0 victors. Right from the start it was clear this day was going to be different.
With the game hanging in the balance and Collins (13-2) facing a 4th-and-8 on Highlands’ 12-yard line with 0:13 left in the game the unthinkable happened. Starting quarterback Lawson Page lost his helmet after contact during the third-down play. Per KHSAA rule he had to come out for a play.
That forced backup Browning Becherer, who did not have time to warm up on the sidelines, to go under center for the single biggest play of the season. The junior didn’t blink and delivered with a scoring strike to senior wide receiver Nathan Sames.
Highlands (13-2) was not able to answer with just seven seconds left on the clock.
“He stepped right in,” head coach Jerry Lucas said moments later. “He didn't throw it right where we wanted but it was the perfect TD.”
Highlands has won six straight state championships and 22 overall. Collins has only been around four years. They’ve never won a single title. If there were point spreads on high school football games this number would’ve likely been over 21 points. Those that believed in the underdogs were not disappointed.
After being shut out last year in the matchup, Collins got on the scoreboard first when Ryan Watkins ran it in from a yard out. Four minutes later Highlands answered as Zach Harris scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 2-yard. After one quarter it was tied 7-7.
The only points in the second quarter came on a 27-yard field goal from Blanton Creque. Collins would take the lead and a whole bunch of confidence into the locker room.
Like every good champion does, Highlands came out fighting in the second half. They went to the ground and once again Harris to try to take control of the game. The senior running back delivered another score on 6-yard run and gave Highlands its first lead of the game at 14-10 less three minutes into the third quarter.
Collins could’ve folded. Instead, they would score 13 unanswered points to close out the third quarter with a 23-14 lead. The first score came on a 4-yard run by DeAndre Farris. The second on a 10-yard TD catch by Sames (PAT failed) on the final play of the quarter.
It was like a heavyweight fight in fourth quarter. Each team was trading blows and each team found themselves on the ropes. The Bluebirds wouldn’t go down without a fight. Senior quarterback Drew Houliston took them right down on the field and quickly cut the lead to two when he found Evan Allen on a 34-yard scoring strike.
Farris came back with another TD run for the Titans only to have Houliston once again throw a bomb. His second and final TD pass was to Alex Henneman on a 42-yard play. That took cut the Collins lead to two, 30-28, with 8:24 left in the game.
The Bluebirds held on the next possession and finally recaptured the lead as Harris scored his third TD on another 1-yard plunge. After a failed 2-point conversion Highlands led 34-30 with 2:33 in the contest.
Collins answered the call one final time as Page led them on a 9-play, 80-yard TD drive, that is except for the drive’s final play. Page started the series off with a 40-yard pass to Farris to take the Titans to the Bluebirds’ 40. A costly unsportsmanlike penalty by the Bluebirds’ Andrew Abner gave Collins another 15 yards and a first down. It all set the stage for the dramatic finish and Becherer’s game-winning pass.
The teams combined for 938 yards of total offense. Collins did most their damage (268 yards) on the ground while Highlands did it through the air (367 yards). Highlands finished with a pair of turnovers and were flagged eight times for 78 yards.
Page completed 15-of-23 passes for 178 yards and a TD and picked up another 108 yards on the ground. Watkins added 121 yards and another TD. Sames caught six passes for 73 yards and two scores, including the game winner.
Harris scored three times and rushed for 103 yards. Houliston threw for 367 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
Highlands’ loss, coupled with NewCath's defeat earlier in the day to DeSales, leaves Northern Kentucky without a state champion for the first time since 2003.
FINAL STATS (KHSSA.org)
06:16 COLLINS - RYAN WATKINS 1 yd run (BLANTON CREQUE kick)
04:15 HIGHLAND - ZACH HARRIS 2 yd run (JARED DOUGHERTY kick)
01:25 COLLINS - BLANTON CREQUE 27 yd field goal
09:23 HIGHLAND - ZACH HARRIS 6 yd run (JARED DOUGHERTY kick)
05:55 COLLINS - DEANDRE FARRIS 4 yd run (BLANTON CREQUE kick)
00:00 COLLINS - NATHAN SAMES 10 yd pass from LAWSON PAGE (BLANTON CREQUE kick blocked)
- EVAN ALLEN 34 yd pass from DREW HOULISTON (JARED DOUGHERTY kick)
09:23 COLLINS - DEANDRE FARRIS 1 yd run (BLANTON CREQUE kick)
08:24 HIGHLAND - ALEX VENEMAN 42 yd pass from DREW HOULISTON (JARED DOUGHERTY kick)
02:33 HIGHLAND - ZACH HARRIS 1 yd run (ZACH HARRIS pass failed)
00:07 COLLINS - NATHAN SAMES 12 yd pass from BR BECHERER (BLANTON CREQUE kick)