ELIZABETHTOWN — The Highlands football machine coughed, wheezed and sputtered a few times, but it was still able to grind out a 33-26 victory over John Hardin in a showdown of top 10 teams Saturday night.
Six-time defending state champ Highlands, No. 3 in Dave Cantrall's Rating the State, notched its 56th win in its last 57 games against Kentucky opponents, and gave Dale Mueller his 300th coaching victory.
"John Hardin has won 77 games over the six previous years, and we've won 87 over the last six, so it was a good game between two good football teams used to winning," Mueller said.
John Hardin Coach Chad Lewis was encouraged by his Bulldogs' performance. They outgained the Bluebirds 476 yards to 342. Their defense forced two Highlands' turnovers in the red zone to keep them in the game.
"I'm shocked by how well we played," Lewis said. "I hate to say I believe in moral victories because I don't, but we showed a lot of heart and character, and I couldn't be prouder of the way we played tonight."
Highlands was never in serious trouble after it built a 20-6 lead late in the first half, and extended the margin to 27-6 midway through the third quarter.
The Bluebirds were led by Drew Houliston, a senior who waited behind Patrick Towles and Donovan McCoy for his turn at quarterback. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns. In four games he's thrown for 1,300 yards and 18 TDs.
"He's tremendous," Mueller said. "It's like coaching an NFL quarterback. He reads it so well. Every play is like having the whole offense with him because he figures out where the ball's going and he finds the guy."
Houliston completed passes to nine different receivers. Brandon Hergott had two TD catches. Jensen Feggins and Zach Harris had one each.
Harris led the Bluebirds' ground game, rushing 13 times for 64 yards and a score.
Mueller said the "outcome would've been better" if Highlands hadn't fumbled away scoring chances at the John Hardin 17 and 13.
But the Bulldogs' offense also did plenty of damage.Patrick Anderson completed 17 of 26 passes for 223 yards and a TD. John Hardin rushed for 253 yards, led by Khalil Frazier's 79 yards.
"I knew we had some talent, but it seemed we were able to open it up tonight," Lewis said. "We threw the ball very well, and that opened up our running game."
Mueller was just happy to win a tough game on the road, and it didn't have anything to do with the fact that it was his 300th victory.
"Numbers aren't that big of a thing," he said.
Maybe not, but they're impressive. Mueller won 59 games in Cincinnati before taking over at Highlands 20 years ago. He has guided the Bluebirds to 241 wins, including 11 state titles.
Might his team surprise him with a celebratory cake in the locker room?
"I hope not," he said with a smile.
Highlands 33, John Hardin 26
Highlands 12 8 7 6—33
John Hardin 3 3 6 14—26
H—Zach Harris 7 pass from Drew Houliston (kick failed). H—Brandon Hergott 5 pass from Houliston (run failed). JH—Duwayne Drexler 34 field goal. JH—Drexler 28 field goal. H—Harris 5 run (Harris run). H—Hergott 16 pass from Houliston (Jared Dougherty kick). JH—Elijah Smith 11 run (run failed). H—Jensen Feggins 12 pass from Houliston (pass failed). JH—Dimitri Cooper 41 pass from Patrick Anderson (Drexler kick). JH—Anderson 2 run (Drexler kick).
Records: Highlands 4-0; John Hardin 2-2.