Plum focused on current Thomas Jefferson team, not Jaguars’ past success

Thursday, November 5, 2020 | 3:45 PM

The Plum football team Friday will play its first WPIAL semifinal game since 1996.

On the other sideline will be Thomas Jefferson, the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 4A champion that owns eight WPIAL and four PIAA crowns since 2004. The Jaguars have made at least the WPIAL semifinals every season since 2012 and in 16 of the last 17 seasons overall.

While Mustangs coach Matt Morgan said the Jaguars’ playoff tradition of success is impressive, he implored his team not to focus on the past but to take advantage of the opportunity it has in the present: playing for a berth in the WPIAL title game.

Friday’s game, which kicks off at 7 p.m., is the first football meeting between the schools.

“We met Sunday evening and watched film, and one of the first things I told the guys was they can’t worry about the name or the tradition or reputation,” Morgan said.

“That was the same thing I talked with them about going into the McKeesport game, and they played confident all game long.”

Plum, which finished the regular season undefeated for the first time since 1977, improved to 8-0 last Friday with a 12-9 quarterfinal victory over McKeesport. It was the first playoff win for the program since 2014.

The Mustangs forced five turnovers — four interceptions and a fumble — as they held the Tigers scoreless in the second half.

“I thought our defense played a great game against a McKeesport (option) offense that is hard to defend,” Morgan said.

Morgan said as satisfying as the win over McKeesport was — Plum snapped a 13-game losing streak against the Tigers dating to 1997 — the celebration didn’t last long.

“We always talk about flipping the page from one game to the next,” he said. “Each game is a different chapter in the book we are writing. Obviously, McKeesport was a huge hurdle we overcame. These kids have been mature about everything all year.”

Thomas Jefferson, which Morgan described as “big, physical, fast and disciplined,” finished tied with McKeesport and Belle Vernon for first in the Big Eight Conference.

The Jaguars (6-1) bounced back from an uncharacteristic home loss to McKeesport in the regular-season finale to rout Mars, 41-6, last Friday.

Thomas Jefferson owns a balanced attack, with 1,327 passing yards and 1,310 on the ground.

Senior Jake Pugh has thrown for 1,217 yards and 18 touchdowns against just three interceptions.

Senior wideouts Ian Hansen and Preston Zandier have combined for 58 receptions, 938 yards and 12 touchdowns. Zandier caught six passes for 111 yards and three touchdowns against Mars, and Hansen, back in the lineup after missing all or part of five games with injuries, added seven catches for 99 yards and a score.

“They want to come out and impose their run game, for sure, but (TJ coach Bill Cherpak) has a little different animal this year with (Zandier) and (Hansen),” Morgan said. “They both are special players. It will be interesting to see how our corners and safeties respond.”

Junior Connor Murga has complemented the passing game with 50 carries for 408 yards and 10 scores.

Defensively, Thomas Jefferson leads Class 4A in points allowed at just 8.7 a game. Plum is not far behind at 10.9.

“Plum’s athleticism and their speed on both sides of the ball really jumps out at you,” Cherpak said. “It’s an experienced group that has paid their dues and put in the time to get better. They are really playing at a high level.”

Plum’s offense is averaging 193.9 rushing yards a game. Sophomore Eryck Moore, who scored the winning touchdown against McKeesport with a 12-yard run early in the third quarter, leads the Mustangs with 721 yards and 12 touchdowns on 86 carries.

Senior quarterback Ryan Hubner has 399 rushing yards and six touchdowns to go along with 1,220 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air.

“You can’t really focus on trying to stop one thing because they are so dynamic in a lot of areas,” Cherpak said. “Ultimately, they are a running team. It’s just different sometimes in how they do it with quick passes on the line of scrimmage where they let their skill guys make plays. But if you stack the box, they can hurt you downfield.”

The winner Friday will meet Aliquippa or Belle Vernon in the championship game at 1 p.m. Nov. 14 at North Allegheny.

“We’re the new kids on the block, if you will, in terms of being in the final four,” Morgan said. “But we’ve felt all along that we belonged. We just wanted the credit we felt we deserved. A big way to get that credit is to beat everyone they put in front of you. That’s what we’re going to try and continue to do, starting Friday.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at or via Twitter .

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