Defending champion Thomas Jefferson routs Oil City, returns to PIAA 4A final

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Friday, November 20, 2020 | 9:53 PM


Thomas Jefferson had the football 10 times Friday night and scored nine touchdowns, an almost-perfect performance that has the Jaguars headed back to Hershey.

TJ teammates Preston Zandier and Conner Murga reached the end zone three times each as the defending state champion steamrolled Oil City, 62-0, in a PIAA Class 4A semifinal on the Jaguars’ home field.

Thomas Jefferson returned only three starters from a season ago, but this year’s team suddenly looks a lot like last year’s championship lineup. In the first half alone, TJ scored 49 points, rolled up 336 yards from scrimmage and held Oil City to 10 yards.

“It’s coming together at the right time,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “We still had a turnover, but for the most part we played pretty mistake free. … We’re peaking at the right time.”

Thomas Jefferson (9-1) advances to face Jersey Shore (10-0) in the state championship Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium. The 4A game was tentatively scheduled for 3:30 p.m., though the PIAA hasn’t made that official. District 4 champion Jersey Shore defeated Lampeter-Strasburg, 39-35, in Friday’s other semifinal.

This will be Thomas Jefferson’s fifth trip to the state finals, a place where the team is unbeaten.

“It’s incredible,” TJ quarterback Jake Pugh said. “With all the stuff that went down — we didn’t even know if we would have a season — and now we’re going back to Hershey two years in a row.”

Said Zandier: “Being a senior, last time on this field, getting a win in that fashion was special.”

On paper, District 10 champion Oil City (10-1) was a match for Thomas Jefferson. The Oilers were undefeated with wins of 68-6, 61-0, 72-0, 75-0 and 56-0 on its schedule this season.

In person, it was a major mismatch.

Oil City crossed midfield only once in the first half — and only briefly — reaching TJ’s 49-yard line before a penalty pushed the Oilers 15 yards backward.

But by then, Thomas Jefferson had already scored five times.

“We knew that they hadn’t played anybody like us,” Cherpak said. “They’re not a come-from-behind offense, so that was our game plan all along: Get a big lead. We won the toss and took the ball.”

TJ was dominant on the ground and in the air.

Pugh and Zandier connected for three first-quarter touchdowns on receptions of 21, 37 and 10 yards. Murga scored once in the first and twice in the second on runs of 40, 2 and 2 yards.

DeRon VanBibber added a 12-yard rushing touchdown before halftime to lead 49-0.

“We didn’t have to rely on the pass or the run,” Zandier said. “We knew both were there from the get go. Murga and DeRon had big runs and then we got the pass going with simple hitches.”

Pugh completed 7 of 9 passes for 180 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Ian Hansen led the Jaguars with four receptions for 112 yards, and Zandier added 68 yards on three catches. Murga rushed for 144 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries.

Hansen and Zandier, both seniors, were two of TJ’s three returning starters.

Oil City had averaged 262 rushing yards per game but finished Friday with 22 yards on 30 carries. In the first half, the Oilers had 8 yards on 20 carries.

“We thought we’d be able to run the football. We just didn’t get it together,” Oil City coach Dan York said. “Any time we’d get positive yardage something would set us back. Thomas Jefferson’s got a good team. They’ve got a lot of speed on defense and they showed it.”

Oil City wasn’t quite the same team it was earlier in the season when it was the one dominating opponents, York said.

The team was missing three would-be starters on each side of the ball. Among them, the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Brayden Crocker was hurt after seven games, and 1,400-yard rusher Cameron Russell hasn’t played since Oct. 31.

“That doesn’t add up real well,” York said, “when you play someone like Thomas Jefferson.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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