By John Lachmann
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Prior to this season, the KHSAA lowered the deficit necessary to trigger the running clock to 36 points.
The governing body may need to revisit that rule next off-season.
Highlands induced the running clock early in the second quarter but saw its lead slip to seven before sealing a 49-35 win over Lexington Catholic at Joseph K. Ford Stadium in a Class 4A state semifinal on Friday.
The Bluebirds will try to extend their state record of consecutive titles as they will shoot for their seventh straight against Collins at Western Kentucky University at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 7.
“That’s a great example of why there shouldn’t be a 36 rule because…they weren’t out of it – that’s a great football team,” Highlands coach Dale Mueller said. “So to make 36 points we went for two (to make it 36-0 in the second quarter) specifically for that competitive advantage. It wasn’t fair to LexCath to have a running clock in the state semifinals.”
The Knights had no answer for Highlands’ long pass plays. Bluebirds senior quarterback Drew Houliston finished 14-for-17 for 357 yards – 25.5 yards per completion – and four touchdowns, giving him 48 TDs vs. just two interceptions for the season.
“We’re a deep-throwing team and we didn’t really hit any deep last week so we thought we could beat (LexCath) deep, and really we did,” Houliston said. “That really helps the offense when we’re hitting deep. (Defenses) are worried about playing deep … it opens up the running game and the short passing game.”
Junior Alex Veneman caught three passes for 150 yards, including a 58-yarder and an 86-yard TD in the second quarter, and junior Jenson Feggins had four receptions for 127 yards and two scores.
“Drew was throwing the ball pretty good tonight – he was throwing it pretty good deep, too, because he was hitting a lot of deep balls there,” Veneman said. “Especially those two to me, they were right on target.”
Highlands fumbled the opening kickoff but recovered, and the Bluebirds put the ball on the ground on their second play from scrimmage but again fell on it.
Senior Zach Harris capped that drive with a 21-yard touchdown run.
LexCath drove to the Highlands 18 on its possession but coughed the ball up and Bluebirds junior defensive back Griffin Urlage fell on it.
Houliston connected with Feggins for a 55-yard gain and hit Feggins for a 19-yard TD pass to cap the drive, making it 14-0 with 4:38 left in the first quarter.
The Knights lost another fumble after a completion, and junior outside linebacker Brady Murray recovered to give Highlands the ball at the LexCath 41.
Feggins caught a 41-yard pass from Houliston on Highlands’ only play of its ensuing possession to extend the lead to 21.
Four fumbles in the first 11 minutes – two by the Bluebirds and two by the Knights – all recovered by Highlands.
“That could’ve been a whole different ball game if they’d bounced the other way and they would’ve got (them),” Houliston said.
Said Mueller: “Really, we say there’s no luck involved: You make your own luck, and getting a fumble – that’s a skill. That’s guys that are hustling to the ball, and our guys did a great job.”
LexCath went three and out on its next two drives and the Bluebirds answered with two touchdowns, one capped by a 20-yard catch by junior Beau Hoge and the next on an 86-yard bomb hauled in by Veneman at midfield on third and 19.
The two-point conversion run by Harris initiated the running clock.
The teams traded touchdowns before halftime, making it 42-7 at the break.
“It started up front – the line played great and gave us a lot of time early on,” Mueller said. We’ve just got some dynamic receivers – Jenson Feggins made some great plays, Alex Veneman made some great plays and we just got the ball down the field in a hurry.”
The Knights went 69 plays in two drives to open the third quarter, intercepted Hoge on the first play of Highlands’ possession and drove 68 yards on five plays to cut the lead to 21 midway through the third quarter.
Highlands’ next drive stalled at the LexCath 33, and the Knights hit five straight passes to set up a 2-yard TD run that made it 42-28 with 6:43 left in regulation.
LexCath possessed an on-side kick and went in to score again with 3:45 remaining, making it a one-possession game.
“Once we get up we’ve got to keep going,” Houliston said. “When you get this far – this is (LexCath’s) last game, they’re not going to quit. We’ve got to realize that and we’ve got to keep playing until the horn sounds.”
But Bluebirds senior Brandon Hergott jumped in and grabbed the following on-side attempt and ran it to the Knights’ 12.
Harris ran it down to the 1 and then punched it in on the next play to seal the game. He finished with 10 carries for 94 yards – giving him exactly 1,000 yards for the season – three touchdowns and a two-point conversion.
Urlage intercepted a desperation bomb with a minute left.
“The running clock saved us,
really,” Veneman said. “It’s a good thing we had that or else it probably would’ve been even closer with the momentum that they had.
The Knights actually outgained Highlands, 457-449 and 369-357 in the air.
“I think a lot of that was my fault for relaxing,” Mueller said. “We took Drew out and we took Zach out, and we went into halftime feeling pretty good about ourselves. Football’s just not that kind of game, and LexCath is an explosive offense with a great quarterback and receivers. You just can’t relax against a team like that.”
Mueller said he would get rid of the running clock altogether, but at the very least it should never happen in a game of this caliber.
“I think if anything when you get to the playoffs, do away with the running clock,” Mueller said. “It’s just not devastating to lose a game. My mom died when I was 26. That was upsetting to me. Losing a game by a bunch is just not a devastating thing to you.”
at LEXCATH 0-7-14-14—35
H-Harris 21 run (Dougherty kick)
H-Feggins 19 pass from Houliston (Dougherty kick)
H-Feggins 41 pass from Houliston (Dougherty kick)
H-Hoge 20 pass from Houliston (Dougherty kick)
H-Veneman 86 pass from Houliston (Harris run)
LC-Mitchell 44 pass from Ryan (Morris kick)
H-Harris 1 run (kick failed)
LC-Bouvier 31 pass from Ryan (Morris kick)
LC-Bouvier 2 pass from Ryan (Morris kick)
LC-Mitchell 2 run (Morris kick)
LC-Bouvier 14 pass from Ryan (Morris kick)
H-Harris 1 run (Dougherty kick)
RECORDS: Highlands 13-1, LexCath 10-4.