"They are the best defensive team we have played in the last six years," Boyle offensive coordinator Chris Pardue said. "They are very aggressive. They all run to the ball well and they have quick, talented personnel at every position."
Boyle's offense has been unstoppable the last eight games. The Rebels are averaging 48.5 points and 438.5 yards per game behind the play of quarterback Brandon Smith. He's thrown for 3,284 yards and 43 touchdowns and ran for 893 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"We like to throw the ball and spread the defense to where we can run the ball as well," Pardue said. "We are not going to change a lot from what we have done in the past."
Four turnovers hurt last time
Highlands' defense stymied Boyle in the first game thanks in part to four Boyle turnovers deep in Highlands territory. The Rebels had 215 yards passing, but managed just seven yards rushing after Quinn Givhan, who has rushed for 1,361 yards this season, was injured in the first half.
Pardue calls Highlands inside linebacker Isaac Scherrer "an exceptional player" and says the defensive backs, led by Jordan Nevels, are all good.
"They just play great team defense," Pardue said. "We have made improvements since the first time we played them, but I don't know if that will be enough. They wanted it more the first game than we did. We didn't make throws, catches or blocks when we had the chances to turn the game in our favor. Maybe if we can get a few points early this time, it will change the game."
Highlands coach Dale Mueller expects the Rebels to score and says the first game was not as one-sided as the score might indicate.
"We had some lucky breaks that stopped Boyle from scoring," Mueller said. "You have to be ready to defend Boyle every play. They are a fast, athletic team with a great quarterback and some terrific receivers in Seth Tamme, Greg Peck and Evan Teague."
Highlands' offense has averaged 34.2 points and 297.4 yards per game, including 220 yards rushing. However, Highlands beat Bell County only 15-10 last week and now the Bluebirds apparently will be without leading rusher Michael Mitchell. He was ruled ineligible this week when a temporary injunction allowing him to play after he transferred from Covington Catholic to Highlands before the season was overturned.
Mitchell ran for 153 yards in the win over Boyle - when Highlands rushed for 303 yards - and had runs of 73 and 61 yards. He's gained 616 yards this season to lead Highlands, and returned a fumble for a touchdown in the win over Bell County.
Chuck Smith says not having Mitchell won't change his team's plans.
"Highlands has a lot of other good players, too. They have great personnel at every position. If he doesn't play, they'll still be fine," Smith said. "Last week was deceiving because the game was not played on a dry field. Their offense is good. They have great talent everywhere and they have so many backs that can hurt you."
Michael Bonomini has rushed for 577 yards and Jordan Kramer 553 for Highlands, which used nine running backs in its regular-season win over Danville.
Quarterback missed first game
Quarterback Chase Cecil missed the first game against Boyle because of illness. He's completed 29 of only 58 passes in nine games, but he averages 20 yards per completion. Tight end Ben Guidugli has 16 catches for 363 yards and Nick Sheffield nine catches for 179 yards. Brad Bardo has only seven catches, but they have been good for 247 yards.
"Their offensive line doesn't miss many assignments, either," Smith said. "They just line up and run the football. I don't know why they wouldn't keep doing that based on the success they had against us earlier. But when they do draw you in, they are good at dropping that pass over you."
"He is our No. 1 quarterback, but we don't change what we are doing whether he's playing or not," Mueller said. "What has changed it that Boyle is playing much better. Boyle always gets better as the season goes on. This year is no different."
Boyle's defense is led by linebacker Danny Commarford with 134 total tackles, including 83 solo stops. Linebacker Evan Teague has 108 tackles and lineman Jacob Arnold 100.
Chuck Smith hopes the combination of going for a sixth straight state title as well as the earlier loss to Highlands propels the Rebels to play their best game of the season.
"The last time we played, they outplayed us, they outhit us and they outcoached us," Smith said. "They flat put it on us. We've been working hard since then to improve. Now we'll line up and see if the work pays off or not."