Thomas Jefferson runs over Belle Vernon in WPIAL Class 4A rematch in semifinals
In the rematch of their Route 51 rivalry, Thomas Jefferson's big front line paved the way back to Heinz Field.
Justin Vigna ran for 199 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 44 carries, and Thomas Jefferson will try to make it three consecutive WPIAL titles after defeating Belle Vernon, 27-0, in the Class 4A semifinals Friday at Baldwin.
The third-seeded Jaguars (10-1) avenged their only loss of the season, a 21-17 setback Oct. 13 that gave No. 2 Belle Vernon (10-1) the Big 9 Conference title. In that game, Thomas Jefferson held a big advantage in yardage but couldn't make it count on the scoreboard.
The second time around, the Jaguars had no such problems.
"We wanted to be physical on the line. Even the last time when we lost, we still controlled the line of scrimmage. We just had to eliminate mistakes, and for the most part we did," Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. "We just kept making plays, on third down getting first downs, and everything kind of went according to plan."
Thomas Jefferson advances to face Montour (9-2) on Nov. 18 at Heinz Field in a final pairing two conference runner-ups who avenged regular-season losses in the semifinals. Montour upset No. 1 South Fayette, 35-27, on Friday.
"It's a great experience every time we go, because it's a brand-new team. You can't ask for anything better," said Vigna, who did postgame interviews with Heinz ketchup smeared down his jersey, courtesy of celebrating family members.
"We had a chip on our shoulder because they beat us, so we came in pounding. Once we got off to a good start in the first quarter, we just kept on hitting."
The Jaguars scored on their first two possessions, drives that lasted 16 and 14 plays and ate up more than eight minutes each. Shane Stump opened the scoring on a 1-yard quarterback sneak, and Vigna scored to cap the second drive with a 25-yard run midway through the second quarter.
After TJ ran the ball on its first 31 plays, Stump went to the air twice on the third drive and hit Garret Fairman for a 23-yard touchdown pass for a 21-0 halftime lead. In total, Thomas Jefferson outgained Belle Vernon in the first half 188-8.
"The key that you always stress with a team that big and that physical is you have to come out strong," Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said. "You can't let them be characteristic TJ — one score, two scores, 14-0 going into the second quarter. That's prototypical of how they steamroll teams, and unfortunately, we were in that position."
As good as the TJ offense was, the defense was more impressive. The Jaguars held Belle Vernon to 26 yards and just one first down, which came on a fourth-down pass midway through the fourth quarter.
"They only had four first downs the last time we played them, and we felt really good about what we were doing," Cherpak said. "It just went according to plan, and we were physical. The kids were out there hitting and flying to the ball."
Said Humbert: "I'm disappointed because I think the matchup was good. Our linemen are good. The tough thing is, they've got three animals up there on that line. I think that's the best defensive line, possibly at all levels, in the WPIAL. I'm extremely excited to see those three graduate, because they're tough to handle."
Belle Vernon assistant coach Scott Knee gets the troops fired up to play Thomas Jefferson in 4a WPIAL semifinal game at Baldwin High School pic.twitter.com/Zg6bC2Y0gD— Trib HS Insider (@TribHSInsider) November 11, 2017
Vigna, whose big rushing day put him at 2,008 all-purpose yards for the season, got the ball on 44 of Thomas Jefferson's 57 offensive plays. Stump was 3-for-5 passing for 67 yards, and fullback Sean Bell added 35 yards on five carries.
"(I'm) sore but going to Heinz. That's all I can say," Vigna said.
Matt Grubba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Grubba_Trib.