Thomas Jefferson bounces back from loss, routs Mars in Class 4A

Friday, October 30, 2020 | 9:48 PM

If there was any thought Thomas Jefferson was in trouble in the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs after dropping its regular season finale to McKeesport, the Jaguars quickly squashed that notion Friday night.

No. 2 TJ got three first-half passing touchdowns from Jake Pugh, two to Preston Zandier and one to Ian Hansen, in a 41-6 dismantling of No. 7 Mars at Jaguar Stadium.

Conner Murga had a 35-yard scoop and score on a Mars fumble and a 9-yard scoring run in the first half.

Despite all this, the game did not start out well for Thomas Jefferson. Pugh ran into running back Deron VanBibber and fumbled giving the Planets the ball at the TJ 18-yard line.

“That is just a mental mistake that we can’t make,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “(Pugh) is such an intelligent player. For your quarterback to run the wrong play, that is inexcusable. But the defense picked it up, held them and bailed us out.”

Not taking advantage of that turnover was trouble for Mars, which managed only 21 first-half yards. Planets star running back Teddy Ruffner left the game in the second quarter with only six yards on 11 carries.

“We could not make a lot of the turnover, but Thomas Jefferson has a good football team,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “There’s not a whole lot you can say. They did a great job on both sides of the ball.”

“(Ruffner) is such a dynamic back. He’s strong, but he can break a big run,” Cherpak said. “We knew that he was their main weapon, so we were keying on him pretty heavily.”

Pugh rebounded from his error and had a stellar night throwing. The senior ended up 14 of 15 for 214 yards and four touchdowns.

“I expect that out of Pugh. He’s a good player, and he’s got some good receivers,” Cherpak said. “If you are patient and you take what’s there, not that it’s easy, but it should work out well.”

Good receivers might be an understatement.

Zandier caught six balls for 111 yards and three touchdowns. The Jaguars welcomed back Ian Hansen, who had missed most of the last five weeks with injuries. Hansen led the team with seven catches and had 99 yards and a score.

“He’s getting back on his feet a little bit,” Cherpak said. “He didn’t play any defense tonight, but we’re going to work him in and get him back in shape. Hopefully he’ll get more reps next week.”

After stopping Mars on fourth-and-1 at the TJ 9-yard line, the Jaguars began marching. It took just eight plays to go 91 yards. The big play was a 60-yard pass from Pugh to Zandier. Then Pugh found Hansen over the middle for a 9-yard score. Jack Sella hit the extra point and made it 7-0 TJ with 5:48 to go in the 1st.

Three plays into the Planets’ next drive, quarterback Quinn Fuller fumbled and Conner Murga was right there to recover and score from 35 yards out. The extra point was blocked, but the Jaguars were ahead 13-0.

The Thomas Jefferson defense forced another three-and-out on the next Mars possession. The Jaguars followed by scoring on the first play of the second quarter with the first Pugh-to-Zandier scoring play, making it 20-0.

The Planets still could not get a first down and shanked a 5-yard punt, giving the Jaguars the ball at the Mars 21. Two plays later, Pugh hit Zandier on a fade in the corner of the end zone to make it 27-0 with 10:24 left in the half.

Murga capped the half with a 9-yard run, and the Jaguars were up 34-0 at the break. Pugh hooked up with Zandier with 5:30 left in the third quarter for a 12-yard score.

Mars finally broke through in the fourth quarter with a Fuller 15-yard touchdown to Pete Gonzalez.

“We were happy to play this year. Back in June, we did not know if we were going to play any games,” Heinauer said. “We got to go to the playoffs. Not a lot of people had that chance. Some teams aren’t playing tonight. We were fortunate enough to play.”

Watch an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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