McKeesport hands Thomas Jefferson its first home loss in 5 years in Class 4A shocker

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Friday, October 23, 2020 | 11:17 PM


The final two and a half minutes of Friday night’s showdown with Thomas Jefferson was arguably the most stressful of Matt Miller’s coaching career at McKeesport.

Trailing by six, the Jaguars started their possession on the Tigers’ 30-yard line before, after seven plays, eventually getting down to the 9 while facing a fourth-and-6.

TJ quarterback Jake Pugh attempted to run for a first down near the goal line, but was stopped by McKeesport lineman Catrell Leggett, preserving a 20-14 upset victory for the Tigers in Big Eight Conference play.

“I understand why some people don’t coach very long. I don’t have too many grays and I want it to stay that way,” Miller said with a laugh following a McKeesport win that snapped TJ’s 21-game winning streak in conference play.

“We just wanted to really play well. We haven’t really played great, and we didn’t play great tonight. There is room for improvement.”

TJ’s loss was its first in conference play since Oct. 13, 2017 and its first on its home field since Sept. 11, 2015. Both of those losses came at the hands of Belle Vernon.

To their credit, however, the Jaguars (5-1, 5-1) didn’t just sit back and let the Tigers (6-1, 5-1) have the upset triumph on their home turf.

TJ trailed 20-0 after three quarters before capping off a 17-play, 68-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Conner Murga early in the fourth.

After McKeesport was forced to punt on its next possession, TJ once again came up with a huge drive, marching 73 yards on a possession capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass to the corner of the end zone from Pugh to Preston Zandier.

With less than four minutes to go, TJ looked for a defensive stop and got it.

McKeesport elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 rather than punt to send TJ deep into its own territory. A quarterback sneak by Caleb Reist went nowhere, forcing a turnover on downs and giving TJ its opportunity late in the game.

“That is a great football team over there,” Miller said. “We had them against the ropes, and it would have been easy for them to just roll over.”

TJ hurt its own cause throughout the game.

The Jaguars, who trailed 7-0 at halftime, committed four turnovers, including three fumbles. Penalties hurt them, too.

On its final drive, TJ had a 13-yard touchdown pass from Pugh to Zandier called back on a holding call before a long pass from Pugh to Jack Konick was also called back for the same infraction.

“They made a couple of plays, but you can’t play one and a half quarters of football and expect to beat a good football team like that,” TJ coach Bill Cherpak said. “All of the things that we always preach and we always say not to do, penalties and turnovers, we did tonight. Obviously they had a part in that, they made us do some of those things. We just took so long to get on track.

“I’m proud of the way we came back in the second half, but it’s my job and the coaches’ job to make sure we don’t start like that ever again.”

It was a defensive battle in the first half as neither team was able to get much going early.

The punters were rather busy up until the 6:24 mark in the second quarter when Terrance Glenn went untouched up the middle for an 85-yard touchdown run on the first play of the Tigers’ fourth drive.

The run, which occurred before McKeesport was able to even get a first down, was followed up by a Milton Campos PAT that made it 7-0 McKeesport.

The Tigers held on to maintain the lead into halftime, but Miller and his group weren’t content with just a seven-point cushion.

“We were nervous,” Miller noted. “We knew we wanted to stop them to start the second half and hopefully punch one in.”

As Miller had hoped, the Tigers indeed found a way to stop the Jaguars and score early in the second half.

Four plays into TJ’s drive, Devontae Hampton stepped in front of a Pugh pass and picked it off before returning it 55 yards to the 3-yard line.

One play after he recovered his own fumble, Glenn added a 3-yard scamper to push McKeesport’s lead to 13-0 after a missed PAT.

“It’s hard to stop us when we get that chance,” Miller said. “(Hampton) made a big play, and he has been huge all year long. He just added to what he’s been doing all season.”

The Tigers wasted little time adding to their advantage as they forced yet another TJ punt and scored on the second play of their next possession.

Reist was able to find running room and raced his way into the end zone from 45 yards away to push the lead to 20.

Glenn finished with 115 yards on 13 carries, while Reist had 66 on 12 carries.

“They’re selfless players who just want to win,” Miller said. “When you get a bunch of guys on the field at a time who are selfless and just want to win, you’re going to do some good things.”

All night, McKeesport’s defensive unit made it difficult on a TJ offense that entered the game having scored an average of 49 points per contest.

In addition to Hampton’s interception, the Tigers forced Murga to fumble twice and picked up another turnover on a fumble by Zandier.

“Troy Blackwell and Tom Smith are dual coordinators and they do an outstanding job every single week,” Miller said. “They put us in great positions defensively. We were physical tonight, and when you are physical and you gang tackle, good things are going to happen.”

Despite being limited to only a pair of fourth-quarter scores, TJ finished with over 100 yards rushing. DeRon VanBibber had 67 yards on 20 carries, while Murga added 59 yards on 11 attempts.

Pugh finished 19 of 29 for 193 yards. Zandier was his top target as the Youngstown State recruit finished with 15 receptions for 157 yards.

“Preston is our go-to guy, and I told him he had to step up,” Cherpak said. “He did a good job, and he made some big plays when we needed him to.”

McKeesport’s win now puts a wrench in the Class 4A playoff picture. The Tigers sit in a three-way tie atop the conference standings with TJ and Belle Vernon at 5-1.

While Miller’s group has a win over TJ, TJ owns a win over BVA, and BVA owns a season-opening triumph over McKeesport.

“We were looking at it today and we’re so blindly optimistic that every team we play, we think we can win against,” Miller said. “There are no gimmes, but it will be exciting. We’ll enjoy this and then figure out who we play next week.”

Listen to an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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