Thomas Jefferson rallies past Belle Vernon on late TD pass

Friday, September 22, 2023 | 11:09 PM

When Belle Vernon and Thomas Jefferson renew their rivalry, there’s usually one play or a series of plays that decide the game.

On Friday night, it was the Jaguars who got those plays.

A fumbled snap on a Leopards punt led to Luke Kosko finding Jason Salman for a 49-yard touchdown with 3 minutes, 5 seconds remaining to give the Jaguars a thrilling 24-19 win over Belle Vernon on The Beach at James Weir Stadium.

Salman was one-on-one with the Leopards’ Anthony Crews and was able to go up and haul in the catch.

“That’s what it always comes down to,” Thomas Jefferson coach Bill Cherpak said. “When they had the ball at the end there, don’t think I wasn’t thinking about Devin Whitlock taking off down the sideline on the final play.

“But that’s what you get when you have two quality teams, two rivals getting together.”

Salman finished with four catches for 145 yards for Thomas Jefferson (5-0). Kosko went 11 of 18 for 199 yards, and Brody Evans finished 8 of 16 for 128 yards with an interception as the quarterbacks continue to split reps.

“I thought both played really well, threw the ball well,” Cherpak said. “We knew they were going to have (Quinton) Martin on Sully (Sean Sullivan). So at halftime, I told them that someone else was going to have to go out there and make a play. Tonight it was Sal.”

The Jaguars’ victory snapped the Leopards’ three-game winning streak in the series.

“I thought we played well enough to win,” BVA coach Matt Humbert said. “We never found ourselves playing from behind. They came in here and played tough. I thought there were some artery-ripping calls that allowed them to keep drives going.

“And when you don’t have guys in there like Jake Gedekoh and Aiden Johnson at full capability, that hurts, too.”

Gedekoh left the game after only one series, and Johnson played hobbled throughout.

“Gedekoh is a 2,000-yard rusher for any other team,” Cherpak said. “Him not being in there affected what they do. You never want to see a kid like that out of a big game like this.”

The Leopards (3-1) jumped on the Jaguars early, taking a 12-0 lead after one quarter.

Anthony Crews hauled down a 13-yard touchdown pass with a beautiful leaping, one-handed grab in front of TJ’s Vinnie Heller. The play capped a nine play, 60-yard drive to open the contest.

After exchanging possessions, the Jaguars had the Leopards pinned at their own 7.

But on a second-down play, Kole Doppelheuer found a hole, slipped a tackler and raced 93 yards for a touchdown. Laux’s 2-point run failed to make it 12-0.

After the Jaguars cut the lead to 12-10 after Michael Banda’s 5-yard run, they fumbled it away to the Leopards at midfield with 27 seconds remaining in the half.

BVA quarterback Braden Laux hit Kole Doppelheuer for a 29-yard gain to the TJ 20.

After spiking the ball to stop the clock, Laux dropped back and found Martin in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass as time expired.

“That’s the kind of play that determines these kinds of games,” Cherpak said. “But our defensive line was big in the second half. We knew we were outsized by them, but we thought if we could beat them to spots we could be effective.”

The Jaguars defense shut out the Leopards in the second half, and the offense did just enough to finally get its team the lead.

Elias Lippincott scored on a 1-yard touchdown with 6:33 remaining to make it 19-17, putting TJ within a score to set up Salman’s big catch.

Lippincott (45) and Michael Banda (48) combined for 93 yards on the ground for Thomas Jefferson.

The TJ defense held Martin to only 34 yards on six carries. Doppelheuer carried twice for 97 yards. Laux ended the night 11 of 24 for 102 yards with the Martin touchdown and two interceptions.

“I thought we did a good job against the running game, but they were able to throw the ball at will,” Humbert said.

“Ultimately, this game means nothing in the grand scheme of things and I think as coaches, we’ve already began moving on.”

Cherpak agreed but was pleased to see how his team competed.

“They’re the best team we’re going to play all season,” Cherpak said of the Leopards. “But this is big because we saw how we can compete. We didn’t know coming in here how good we are. They’re going to go on and win the state. That’s a great football team we beat, and I think it shows us where we stand.”

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