The Highlands Bluebirds know a bit about post-season football. Dale Mueller's team has found themselves holding up a state championship trophy at the end of each of the past three seasons.
The Johnson Central Golden Eagles do not have the playoff pedigree that their opponent brings into the Class 5A quarterfinal, but they do have home-field advantage and one of their best teams in recent memory.
It promises to be an action-packed football game on Friday night in Paintsville.
Let's take a closer look at the matchup:
HIGHLANDS (11-1) AT JOHNSON CENTRAL (10-2)
7:30 p.m. kickoff
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Highlands is led by quarterback Patrick Towles, who guided the Bluebirds to a state title as a sophomore. The 6-foot-5, 232-pounder not only burns teams with his arm, but also is a threat on the ground. The junior leads the team in rushing with 608 yards and 11 TD's on the ground and has also thrown for 1,996 yards and 17 additional scores. Johnson Central will count on running back sensation J.J. Jude. He rushed for a state-record 584 yards and six touchdowns in a game last month vs. Woodford County and helped carry the Golden Eagles past Covington Catholic a week ago as he tallied 465 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
TEAM TRENDS: Highlands has only allowed 90.6 yards per game on the ground this season. However, that number is a bit skewed as teams often are forced to stop running the football. The Bluebirds put 41.6 points on the board while only ceding 15.3 points per contest to their opponents. Johnson Central has been equally explosive putting 37.5 points per game, but has allowed 22.8 points per week. The Eagles have won eight straight home games with their only loss coming to Boyle County (one of the state's top 4A teams) in the opener. Highlands has knocked Johnson Central out of the playoffs each of the past two years on their way to state titles. They won 42-21 at home last season and came out on top 35-21 in Paintsville in 2008. The teams have only one common 2010 opponent, Covington Catholic. The Bluebirds beat the Colonels 27-20 in Ft. Thomas in Week 8. The Golden Eagles knocked off CovCath 41-28 last week at home to advance to this week's contest.
JOHNSON CENTRAL'S KEYS TO VICTORY: First and foremost, the Eagles must believe they can beat Highlands. After coming up short in each of the past two postseasons the motivation should be there. Stopping the big plays and taking care of the football is where it begins. Quarterback J.K. Hall hasn't been asked to do much in the air to this point of the season, but he'll need to help take some pressure off of Jude here and can ill afford to turn over the football. Defensively, the Golden Eagles need to limit the 30-plus yard passing plays Towles so often converts. Sophomore defensive back Jimmy Preston has had a penchant for creating turnovers and will look to continue to build on his breakout his season. A big effort by him and the rest of Johnson Central's secondary could prove to be the difference.
HIGHLANDS' KEYS TO VICTORY: The Bluebirds won't be able to shut down Jude, but they must contain him. The team is not as strong up front on defense as it has been in recent years and now is their chance to step up. Defensive backs Drake Bruns and Austin Abner must be able to help out against the run and prevent Jude from breaking long plays. Getting a couple of early touchdowns will not only help control the hostile environment, but will also force the Eagles to keep up. Wide receivers Daniel Gold and Austin Sheehan will need to be productive in the offense to make this happen. Highlands comes in the game banged up at quarterback, linebacker, and running back. They will need a group effort to pull off a win here.
FINAL TAKE: There is no doubt that this year's Highlands team is vulnerable and lacks the experience that made last year's squad so dominant. In addition, Johnson Central is on the rise and will have 3,500 fans on their side. Still, Highlands finds a way to win and head coach Dale Mueller and his staff will have their team ready for all takers. It's going to take four quarters of perfect football to knock them off and Johnson Central is too one-dimensional to knock off the champs. Expect the closest game in the series yet, but the results will be the same…HIGHLANDS 38, JOHNSON CENTRAL 34