Highlands takes down New Castle in trademark style
If Highlands coach Sam Albert wants to show someone the essence of the Golden Rams' playing style, he might just want to put a video of the second quarter of Friday's 24-19 win over New Castle in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs on repeat.
In that 12-minute stretch, one can watch No. 7 seed Highlands (7-3) swarm the No. 10 Red Hurricanes' backfield for an 8-yard loss on fourth-and-1 at the Golden Rams' 37-yard line.
There's also the chance to see Golden Rams junior wide receiver Jeremy Jackson deliver a fierce crack-back block downfield to spring his brother, junior running back Elijah Jackson, for a 50-yard pickup that put Highlands in field goal range just before halftime.
Or Albert might direct a viewer's attention to the play late in the quarter where senior Allan Cratsenberg, as a Wildcat quarterback, went straight up the gut of New Castle's defense, ran over a safety, and raced to the end zone for a 31-yard score.
Relentless defense and gritty offense, two team trademarks, allowed Highlands to secure its first playoff win since 2008. The Golden Rams will play No. 2 Thomas Jefferson in the quarterfinals.
“(New Castle) is an awesome, well-coached football team — you saw the skill,” Highlands coach Sam Albert said. “Our kids could in no way match up, but we played our brand of football. … Our coaches did a great job of getting the kids prepared.”
New Castle (7-3) lost in the first round for the first time since 2007.
At halftime, Highlands led, 17-6. Through two quarters, it held New Castle to minus-10 rushing yards and just three first downs, the last of which came on a defensive holding call with five minutes left in the first quarter.
“We wanted to contain all the athletes they have,” Cratsenberg said. “Just make sure they don't get outside and make big plays.”
New Castle's offense opened the game with a convincing an eight-play drive that ended with a 40-yard touchdown pass from senior Julian Cox to senior wide receiver and Ohio State recruit Malik Hooker.
Highlands responded with its own dominant drive, which ended with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Blake Leri to Jeremy Jackson.
That remained the score until Cratsenberg's touchdown run with three minutes left in the second quarter.
Highlands found itself rolling, and New Castle was reeling. Cox, a dual-threat who threw for more than 1,300 yards this season, missed most of the second quarter due to a deep right thigh bruise suffered three weeks ago that has not healed.
Cox re-entered the game late in the fourth quarter and connected with Drew Allen on fourth-and-11 for an 18-yard touchdown pass that cut New Castle's deficit to 17-12 with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
Cox finished with 166 yards passing, 103 of which came in the second half.
“He played on one leg tonight and was an absolute warrior,” New Castle coach Joe Cowart said. “Really, you tip your caps to those guys (Highlands). They pushed us around. They were physical. They were aggressive. They executed their game plan a lot better than we executed ours, with or without our starting quarterback.”
The Golden Rams kept Cox and his back-up, sophomore Pat Minenok, under constant pressure. Undersized senior nose guard Derrick Mazur had two sacks.
“I go a little crazy,” the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Mazur said. “You've got to be crazy in there, because they're real technical. You've got to go left, right, left, right, underneath sometimes. You've got to keep them guessing.”
New Castle benefitted from three 15-yard penalties on Highlands in the fourth quarter, but the Golden Rams had their own fortunate breaks. Jordan Lineburg scored the game-deciding touchdown with 9:05 left in the fourth quarter when he caught a 42-yard pass from Leri that a New Castle defender initially tipped.
Twice in the game's final seven minutes, New Castle drove into Highlands' territory only to lose the ball on bad exchanges. The Golden Rams, due in part to their blitzing, recovered both fumbles.
“If (Cox) has time to throw, I don't know if anyone in the WPIAL can go with those kids,” Albert said. “They're that good. So our game plan, like we always do, was to bring heat and hope we get to them.”