Even before the first snap of the 2012 WPIAL football season, Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin were expected to be among the upper echelon of teams in not only the Big Nine Conference, but in all of Class AAA.
As the season progressed and the teams remained undefeated, their season-ending meeting was viewed with a sense of cautious optimism, if only they could both avoid a loss along the way.
Now, that hope is a reality as the Jaguars and the Titans -- the only unbeaten teams in Class AAA -- will collide Friday night to determine the Big Nine championship.
Predictably, many of the story lines surrounding the game are centered around the teams' offenses, and understandably so. Averaging 44.8 and 40.8 points per game, respectively, Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin are the highest-scoring teams in Class AAA, with both teams featuring star offensive players such as West Mifflin running back Jimmy Wheeler and Thomas Jefferson's pass-catch combo of Joe Carroll and Zach Schademan.
The defenses, however, might wind up being a much larger factor than expected.
While the offenses steal headlines, the Jaguars and Titans sport two of the statistically best defenses in Class AAA.
Thomas Jefferson allows 9.3 points per game, the second-best mark in Class AAA, with West Mifflin close behind at 10.3 points allowed per game. Neither team has allowed an opponent to score more than 28 points this season.
"I would say overshadowed," Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said when describing the teams' defenses. "It's just that the offenses have been so potent. That's kind of the glamor, but once you get in the playoffs, defense is what wins games."
Though their offensive production this season has been impressive, both teams saw their offenses stalled, or at least somewhat neutralized, when they played against Elizabeth Forward. Ranked in the top six in scoring defense in Class AAA (11.6 points per game allowed), the Warriors held both Thomas Jefferson (21) and West Mifflin (27) to their lowest scoring totals of the season, albeit in losses to both teams.
The winner automatically will be the No. 1 seed from the Big Nine, while the loser will be guaranteed the second spot, with both teams receiving home games in the opening round of the WPIAL playoffs.
"It's just a big game to be in," Cherpak said. "That's what high school football is all about, being in games like this."
• Game: West Mifflin at Thomas Jefferson, 7:30 p.m.
• Where: Jaguar Stadium.
• Check this out: West Mifflin has not beaten Thomas Jefferson on the road in a regular season game since 1994, a 34-15 victory.
First Published October 26, 2012 4:00 AM