HIGHLAND – The statistics mirrored each other.
First downs, rushing yards and passing yards were almost identical. But for the Highland High football team to defeat Rochester, a team that averages 53 points a game and has won seven state titles this decade, the Bulldogs would have to match Rochester score for score.
Highland went just 5-for-19 on third and fourth downs and surrendered two touchdowns of over 70 yards as Rochester defeated the Bulldogs 42-7 in a Class 5A second round playoff game on Saturday.
The first drives of both teams mirrored each other, both resulting in fourth down plays from inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.
But where Rochester scored on a Hank Beatty end around, the Bulldogs were stuffed on fourth-and-goal.
“That was it. We weren’t able to convert on third and fourth-and-short,” Highland coach Jim Warnecke said. “But when you go against an offense like that, you’ve got to take those chances.”
Rochester (10-1) is usually balanced between the run and pass, but the Rockets relied heavily on the run in the first half, as 21 of the first 29 offensive snaps were runs. Late in the first quarter, Dalton Tieman ended a five-play drive that featured all runs with a 24-yard touchdown gallop.
“Part of the game plan was (run-pass-options), pre-snap reads, run the ball or throw it out,” Rochester senior quarterback Clay Bruno said. “They were giving us numbers in the box and we had faith in our (offensive line) that they could get it done.”
Led by freshman quarterback Brent Wuebbles, Highland mounted an 11-play, 68-yard drive, highlighted by a 32-yard diving reception by senior Connor Sands. Wuebbles kept the ball on third down, scoring from seven yards away and cutting the deficit to 14-7.
Wuebbles threw for 127 yards, ran for 87, and stood stoically in a collapsing pocket to deliver throws and calmly escape pressure - a sign of his growth as a quarterback this season.
“(The season) started off rough, everything goes so fast in your head,” Wuebbles said. “But once the seniors tell you they’ve got your back, it’s a great feeling and I’m thankful for that.”
On the very next offensive play, Bruno found Beatty deep down the center of the field for a 70-yard bomb to reinstall a two-touchdown lead.
“That’s the look that we were looking for with a single high safety,” Bruno said. “I knew Hank had the speed to get up and over him and he just ran a great route.”
Near the end of the half, Bruno sped up the already lightning-quick pace of his offense by running eight plays in the final 90 seconds as Jacob DuRocher powered into the end zone from two yards away right before intermission.
“We knew that they were an upbeat team and we were going to have to keep up with them,” said Sands, who also plays defensive back. “We had to disguise our coverages and work together. That’s what we prepared for.”
Highland (7-4) held Rochester scoreless in the third quarter, the same quarter where the Rockets scored 40 points in their first round playoff game against LaSalle-Peru, but the Bulldogs’ offense could not convert on third or fourth downs in the second half, turning the ball over on downs on three successive drives.
In the fourth quarter, the Rockets’ quick pace and powerful offensive line began to wear down the Bulldogs as Beatty and Tieman both broke tackles on touchdown runs of 29 and 73 yards respectively.
For a young Highland squad, going toe-to-toe with a powerful Rochester team is something to build on.
“I thought our defense played stellar, we battled hard,” Warnecke said. “I’m just proud of the effort that all our guys put forth today.”