With his team gathered around him on the field after the game, Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak presented defensive coordinator Jack Giran with the game ball.
Giran flashed a big smile and said the thing belonged to Thomas Jefferson's defensive players.
Everyone on the Thomas Jefferson side was just giddy about defense Friday night, and for good reason.
The Jaguars put together a stellar defensive effort in the second half against one of the WPIAL's best running backs. Coupled with a strong running game of its own in the final two quarters, Thomas Jefferson knocked off West Mifflin, 28-14, in a battle of WPIAL unbeatens.
The WPIAL Class AAA Big Nine Conference win gives Thomas Jefferson a perfect mark in the regular season for the eighth time overall and the sixth since Cherpak became coach in 1995. The Jaguars, who won the conference title, are 9-0 and likely will get the No. 1 seed in the Class AAA playoffs that begin next weekend.
West Mifflin finished the regular season 8-1 and will go into the playoffs as the second-place team in the Big Nine.
"They took away our running game, and we didn't take away theirs," said West Mifflin coach Ray Braszo.
West Mifflin's Jim Wheeler came into the game as the WPIAL's second-leading rusher with 1,543 yards and a 9.5 yards-per-carry average. He ran for 119 yards on 18 carries in the first half to help keep West Mifflin close. The Titans trailed, 21-14, at halftime.
But Wheeler had 12 yards on five carries in the second half to finish with 131.
"I knew it was going to come down to defense. I really did," Cherpak said.
"These types of games always seem to come down to defense in the second half and running the ball."
Cherpak heaped praise on Giran, a longtime coach who won WPIAL titles as a head coach at Steel Valley in the 1980s. Giran was an assistant at Steel Valley when Cherpak played there. Giran now lives the "retired" life in Florida and comes back to the Pittsburgh area for football season only. This is his third year as Thomas Jefferson's defensive coordinator.
"It's awesome to have him," Cherpak said. "He's been working on [West Mifflin] a long time. Every week, we'd do a game plan for that week's game, but he would break down West Mifflin [film], too."
West Mifflin managed 13 yards offense in the second half.
"I think we just got after it a little more in the second half," Giran said. "The thing is we're pretty young on defense. We have eight underclassmen on defense."
While Thomas Jefferson shut down West Mifflin's running game in the second half, TJ stuck to the ground and kept Wheeler off the field. Although Thomas Jefferson quarterback Joe Carroll threw for two touchdowns in the first half to give him a WPIAL-leading 33 this season, the Jaguars played power football in the second half. Carroll did not complete a pass in the second half.
But running back Jake Farrell ran for 68 yards on 15 carries in the second half and finished with 84 yards. The big key was a 15-play, 76-yard drive that chewed up 7:50 of the second-half clock and ended on Byron Minous' 3-yard touchdown run. That gave Thomas Jefferson a 28-14 lead with 6:35 left.
"A drive like that is very hard to do in high school," Cherpak said.
The first half had a few changes in momentum, and Thomas Jefferson took a 21-14 lead to the locker room.
Thomas Jefferson scored the first 14 points. Zach Schademan got things started when he returned the first punt 79 yards for a touchdown.
Thomas Jefferson then scored on its first possession, moving 72 yards in six plays for a score.
Carroll hit Dalton Dietrich on a 25-yard pass, and then threw 33 yards to Colton Booher on the next play for a touchdown. Evan Danscak's kick made it 14-0 with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
Then, Wheeler and West Mifflin came alive. Wheeler ran 62 yards to the Thomas Jefferson 10, and then scored a touchdown four plays later on a 1-yard run.
West Mifflin tied it, 14-14, moving 62 yards in eight plays for a score on its next possession. Wheeler capped it with a 5-yard touchdown run.
But Thomas Jefferson went back ahead, 21-14, when Jake Mascaro caught a 7-yard scoring pass from Carroll with 3:31 left in the half.
Then, in the second half, Thomas Jefferson was grounded, which was a good thing.
"If you want to win in the playoffs, you have to be able to run the ball and play good defense," Cherpak said. "For the most part, I think we just tackled better in the second half."
Braszo said: "The reality is you'd like to win the conference. But it all starts over again next week in the playoffs."
First Published October 27, 2012 4:15 AM