Either Thomas Jefferson or West Mifflin will run away with Big 9 title
West Mifflin's Jimmy Wheeler could break a regular-season rushing record Friday night, and his coach hopes wholeheartedly that he does.
It's not that Ray Braszo likes records.
“If he has a chance to get it, that means we're doing well,” said Braszo, whose team will host rival Thomas Jefferson in a undefeated matchup to determine the Big 9 Conference champion. “We'll probably need him to break that record to beat them.”
West Mifflin has relied heavily on Wheeler, who has 2,008 yards. He needs 141 more to match Steel Valley's Delrece Williams, who set the WPIAL's nine-game record with 2,149 in 2010.
The Titans (8-0, 7-0) lead the WPIAL in rushing yards with 2,900. Thomas Jefferson (8-0, 7-0) ranks third with 2,489. Each has only around 800 passing yards, so that removes a little mystery from both game plans for Friday.
The team that runs best should win.
“I've played against Ray Braszo long enough to know they're not going to change,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said, “and we've pretty much shown our hand as well.”
That wasn't necessarily the case last season.
A year ago, Thomas Jefferson had the sixth-most passing yards in the WPIAL behind quarterback Joe Carroll and wideout Zach Schademan, who since have graduated. That team threw for 2,400 yards and rushed for 1,800. That pass-first, run-second approach earned the Jaguars an undefeated regular season and the No. 1 playoff seed in 2012.
But the spread has been replaced.
This year's team restored the ground game, added a fullback and returned to the physical style the Jaguars used while winning WPIAL and PIAA titles.
“It's fun to throw the ball around and have big plays,” Cherpak said. “But to win the close games and to win games in late November and into December, you have to run the football. That's been proven year in and year out.”
Thomas Jefferson has relied on a few rushers this season, led by 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior Austin Kemp, who has 816 yards and 12 touchdowns. With Kemp slowed by a back injury in Week 8, junior tailback Ricky Daley rushed for five touchdowns.
Quarterback Chase Winovich, a Michigan linebacker recruit, also has 335 yards and seven touchdowns. The Jaguars alternate between seniors Winovich and Christian Breisinger under center. Breisinger, who throws more than Winovich, has 618 passing yards.
An oversized offensive line has been TJ's best strength. The front five has seniors Jason Inks (6-5, 305) and Mat Nagy (6-3, 255) at tackle, junior Jake Guinn (6-1, 255) at center, and senior Cole Costy (6-2, 265) at right guard. Senior Austin Boyd (5-10, 220) and Garrett Pahanish (5-10, 230) alternate at left guard.
“It's one of the best we've had, no doubt,” Cherpak said. “The year that we had Lucas (Nix) and (Pat) Eger as our tackles (in 2007) was probably our best, but this is pretty close. They're really athletic and have great size.”
The switch from passing to running has better used their talent.
“Their size difference up front is a big concern,” Braszo said.
This will be the second straight season Thomas Jefferson and West Mifflin reached their Week 9 matchup undefeated. Thomas Jefferson has outscored opponents 353-56 including a 49-6 victory over Uniontown last Friday. West Mifflin holds a 337-104 edge after beating Trinity, 43-28.
Thomas Jefferson won last year, 28-14, to sustain a home winning streak that has reached 50 games. West Mifflin won 27-14 in 2011 when it last hosted this series.
“We have to be able to control their running game a little bit,” Braszo said. “They get those sustained drives and keep the ball away from you. Last year that happened to us in the second half. They had the ball too long and they force you to do something in a series or two. Before you know it, the game's over.”
The two offenses are similar in approach.
West Mifflin sophomore quarterback Karlyn Garner has averaged just six passes a week. He's completed 33 of 49 for 734 yards and seven touchdowns. His leading receiver, junior Kevin Garbark, has just nine catches, but six were touchdowns. They combined for a 36-yarder last week.
With Wheeler in the backfield, the Titans haven't needed to throw. Wheeler has 585 yards more than the second-leading rusher in the WPIAL.
“This is probably the 10th year in a row they've had one of the leading rushers in the WPIAL coming into the game,” said Cherpak, who was impressed with Wheeler's acceleration. “Every year it's the same; we try to contain them and not give up big plays.”
Wheeler isn't big in stature, but the 5-7, 170-pound senior has been durable. He has 27 touchdowns, including four last week. He's averaging 27 carries a game.
“He holds up pretty good,” Braszo said. “We don't kill him throughout the week. He gets dinged up a little bit, but he seems pretty strong at this point for all the carries that he's had.”