By Dan Wright
CINCINNATI – Highlands managed to erase a 14-point, first-half deficit in Friday night’s highly anticipated interstate meeting win Cincinnati Elder, but a 13-point hole 2:15 into the second half proved too much to overcome.
Elder held on for a 30-27 win over the Bluebirds at the Pit in the Price Hill neighborhood.
"I could not be more proud of a group," Highlands head coach Dale Mueller said of his Bluebirds. "Down 14, we came back. Down 13, we came back, and we were just that far from winning the game at the end."
The loss, which ends a 14-game winning streak for the Bluebirds, came against the same Elder team that halted Highlands’ 28-game winning streak with a 38-24 win in Fort Thomas last season.
Elder now holds a 6-1 edge in its series with Highlands.
Still, Elder coach Doug Ramsey felt this may have been the best Highlands team he’s seen.
"I think defensively they’re better than they’ve been," Ramsey said. "They don’t run it a lot but they pass protect very well and that quarterback (Drew Houliston) has got a big arm, he’s an accurate thrower, and he’s got a nice receiving corps. I think they have a nice package."
Still, Elder dominated the early going, scoring two touchdowns before Highlands could muster a first down, leading 14-0 with 9:51 to go in the first half.
That’s when an adjustment on the offensive line enabled the Bluebirds to unleash the tandem of senior quarterback Drew Houliston and junior receiver Jensen Feggins.
"We changed our line blocking scheme just to give our quarterback more time," Feggins said. "Once our quarterback got more time, it opened up for the receivers."
Nobody benefited more than Feggins, who caught 10 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns, starting with a 44-yard strike for Highlands first first down of the game.
Feggins capped the drive by hauling in a 7-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-goal.
Elder appeared poised to restore its two-touchdown lead with a long drive, but senior defensive back Jackson Bardo recorded the first of his two interceptions in the end zone with 1:09 remaining in the second quarter.
Highlands quickly raced down field, including two passes to Feggins for 34 yards, to score on a three-yard run by senior Zach Harris with 23 seconds left in the half, erasing the Elder’s early, 14-0 advantage, with the Bluebirds also having possession to start the second half.
"That was huge for our team in general," Feggins said. "Our defense stepped up to the plate and helped us out. It gave us a lot of momentum going into half. I just wish we could have scored on that first drive in the second half."
Instead of Highlands taking control of the game, Elder senior defensive end Dustin Applegate made a pair of plays that helped put Elder back up by 13.
Applegate sacked Houliston for 11 yards on the first play of the second half, one of four sacks he would have in the game, causing Highlands to punt three plays later and give the Panthers a short field which resulted in quarterback Peyton Ramsey’s 35-yard, go-ahead touchdown.
Applegate made a bigger impact on Highland’s next snap, falling on a loose ball in the end zone after a failed exchange to put the Panthers ahead, 27-14, with 9:45 left in the third quarter.
"He made a ton of plays," Doug Ramsey said of Applegate. "We needed to get pressure on that quarterback (Houliston), and I think that’s what we were able to do. Had we not been able to get pressure, he would have picked us apart."
Elder seemed poised to pull away even more, but Houliston hit Feggins with a 46-yard pass on third- and-24, setting up Harris for a four-yard touchdown run on the next play to make the score 27-21.
Elder upped its lead to nine, 30-21 on a 23-yard field goal by senior Matt Murray with three seconds left in the third quarter, but Houliston and Feggins hooked up for a nine-yard touchdown with 5:13 remaining in the game, with a missed extra point leaving Highlands three points behind, 30-27.
Elder was unable to generate another first down the rest of the game, but managed to hold off two final possessions by the Bluebirds.
The first featured a pass from Houliston to junior Alex Veneman that was ruled incomplete at the Elder 15-yard line when it was determined Veneman was unable to cleanly hold on to the ball while diving to make the catch.
"I was running to go to celebrate with him," said Feggins. "I saw his arms under the ball and I thought he caught it."
Applegate and junior Joe Schroer combined to sack Houliston on the next play, knocking him out of the game, and junior Beau Hoge’s desperation heave on fourth down was knocked away.
Hoge was unable to connect on four consecutive passes on Highlands' final possession in the final minute.
Houliston completed 20 of 36 passes for
279 yards with two touchdowns and one interception before leaving the game, increasing his touchdown-to-interception ratio to 35-1 on the year. Harris carried 15 times for 77 yards as Highlands finished with 316 yards of offense.
Ramsey, Elder’s sophomore quarterback and the coach’s son, completed 17 of 24 passes for 241 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Senior receiver Austin Cipriani caught eight passes for 103 yards while senior receiver Andrew Sportsman had five grabs for 113 yards.
Senior running back Chris Schroer, who ran 45 times for 259 yards and five touchdowns in Elder’s win last season, had 89 yards on 28 carries this season, with one touchdown. Ramsey added 68 yards on 13 carries as Elder gained 398 yards on offense.
Although the Bluebirds were unable to avenge their only other loss in the past three seasons, Feggins says the game still could be key in the Bluebirds quest for a seventh straight state championship.
"It helps us," Feggins said. "It makes our team better in general facing better competition like this and facing a GCL (Greater Catholic League) team like Elder. It will help us later on this season when we go farther on in the playoffs and possibly even to state."
at CIN. ELDER 7-7-16-0—30
E-Pike 4 pass from Ramsey (Murray kick)
E-Schroer 2 run (Murray kick)
H-Feggins 7 pass from Houliston (Dougherty kick)
H-Harris 3 run (Dougherty kick)
E-Ramsey 35 run (kick failed)
E-Applegate recovered fumble in end zone (Murray kick)
H-Harris 4 run (Dougherty kick)
E-Murray FG 23
H-Feggins 9 pass from Houliston (kick failed)
RECORDS: Cincinnati Elder 7-2; Highlands 8-1.