For the second straight week the Highlands Bluebirds head south for some playoff football.
Highlands held off Johnson Central in a 21-14 contest last Friday and seemed a bit out of whack at times. However, they made the plays when they counted and relied on their defense to win them the game.
Head coach Dale Mueller will ask his team to put four quarters of good football together this time out with a trip to Bowling Green next weekend for a chance to play for the 5A state championship on the line.
Harlan County's resume isn't quite as impressive as last week's opponent, but the Black Bears are capable of ruining the Bluebirds' bid for a four-peat if they aren't taken seriously.
Let's preview Friday's playoff game:
HIGHLANDS (12-1) AT HARLAN COUNTY (12-1)
Harlan High School
Friday, Nov. 26 - 7:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Harlan County relies heavily on the run with Marcus McMillian and Dylon Smith shouldering the load. The duo has combined for 2,130 yards and 35 touchdowns on the season. Highlands' junior Patrick Towles is one win away from starting under center for his second straight game. He enters the contest having passed for 18 touchdowns and rushed for 13 more scores. Senior Daniel Gold is playmaker at both receiver and on special teams. He promises to be a tough match-up for the Black Bears.
TEAM TRENDS: Highlands' defense and special teams has scored 10 times in 13 games. The Bluebirds average 40 points per game while holding opponents to just 15.2 points. They are seeking a state record 20th state title (tied with Trinity w/19). Harlan County advanced to this game by beating Pulaski County 35-21. They lost in the opening week of the season to that same team, 40-7. The Black Bears' average margin of victory this season is 34.7 points. They are 5-1 at home this season and have played all three weeks of the playoffs at the school.
HIGHLANDS' KEYS TO VICTORY: Highlands hits the road again and will face another hostile environment. Towles along with running backs Jordan Streeter, Corey Compton and Jake True will need to get it done against a defense that allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (67 ypg) of any 5A team in the state. All of it starts up front for the Bluebirds, where the offensive line has made great strides to this point of the season. Highlands' defense knows what is coming. Stopping the run is everyone's priorities. The team will lean on Ty Seidl, Ben Lofland, Drake Bruns, and Austin Abner to make plays all over the field. If Highlands can get up a couple of scores early, it will be a long night for Harlan County.
HARLAN COUNTY'S KEYS TO VICTORY: Look for Harlan County to follow Johnson's Central blueprint from a week ago. The Black Bears must move the chains and grind it out. Not only will it shorten the game, but it will keep Highlands' potent offense cold on the sidelines. They aren't going to stop Towles, but they have to contain at least one element of his game. Jake Middleton, Zach Chitwood, and Carson Whitehead need to have big nights on defense and not allow the Bluebirds to break tackles and turn two and three-yard plays into 20-yard gains. Winning the turnover battle is a must and defensive back Cory Brewer (5 INT's) has displayed a nose for the football.
FINAL TAKE: Highlands has too much talent, balance and experience to not be the heavy favorite here. The only team that is going to beat them on Friday will be themselves. Expect a much larger margin than a week ago…HIGHLANDS 38, HARLAN COUNTY 20
Written by: Dan Clasgens, TriStateFootball.com