Whitlock’s big play lifts Belle Vernon over Thomas Jefferson in game that lives up to hype

Friday, September 24, 2021 | 11:10 PM

The Big 8 Conference battle between Belle Vernon Area and Thomas Jefferson lived up to every bit of the hype.

The big-play Leopards and the powerful Jaguars spent everything they had battling on “The Beach” at James Weir Stadium.

In the end, it was Devin Whitlock doing Devin Whitlock things.

The Belle Vernon quarterback brought the Leopards faithful to their feet with a 40-yard touchdown run with 4.5 seconds remaining to lead the Leopards to a 28-21 win over the Jaguars.

“I was kind of surprised that hole opened up that way,” Whitlock said of the run. “(Jordan) Mayer kept the outside contain, and the other guy kind of came upfield and at a weird angle. I just saw the hole and took it.”

The Leopards (4-0) scored twice in the final 4 minutes, 7 seconds as Whitlock ended the game with 18 carries for 168 yards. Of those, 135 came in the second half.

“It was the big plays,” TJ head coach Bill Cherpak said. “We knew that was going to be the key, and we didn’t stop them. You knew what was coming. and we just couldn’t stop them.”

The tide turned late in the first half, just after Thomas Jefferson took a 13-7 lead with 1:04 left. It was another big play by the Leopards flipping momentum.

Michael Inks sent a high kickoff that Quinton Martin field at the 12-yard line, and, with one quick cutback to the middle, Martin was off to the races for an 88-yard touchdown return. Tyler Kovatch’s extra point made it 14-13, where the score stood at the half.

“The plan was to squib it,” Cherpak said of the kick return. “I don’t know if our kicker just missed it or got under it too much, but you can’t do that there.”

The Leopards opened the scoring with 1:36 remaining in the first quarter as Martin escaped the heart of the TJ defense for a 50-yard run.

The Jaguars (3-1, 1-1) responded with a patented 12-play, 75-yard drive, capped by Joe Lekse’s 1-yard run.

“That kid played a heck of a game for us. He is just willing to do whatever it takes to win,” Cherpak said.

Lekse finished with 100 yards on 18 carries and three touchdowns.

In the second half, Whitlock and Lekse threw interceptions, McClain Flinn getting TJ’s, and Chase Ruokonen had BVA’s.

The bad news for the Leopards, though, was Martin went down with an apparent knee injury, thrusting sophomore Jake Gedekoh into an important position.

“I think that’s what I’m most impressed with is the way our kids stepped up after Q went down,” Belle Vernon coach Matt Humbert said.

Said Whitlock: “We were going to do whatever it took. I know I wanted to do whatever I could. But we had guys step up and play well. We had each other’s backs.”

The Jaguars regained the lead with 8:28 remaining, with Lekse walking in from 19 yards on a fourth-and-7.

“We were misaligned on that play. That’s what killed me,” Humbert said. “Against a team like that, you can’t have those mistakes. But when guys go down, you flip guys in different places and that happens.”

Lekse’s 2-point conversion made it 21-14.

Whitlock and the Leopards answered again, this time it was his arm making big plays.

He found Ruokonen on a 12-yard pass for a long third-down conversion before racing 42 yards for a touchdown with 4:07 left to make it 21-21 after Tyler Kovatch’s PAT.

The BVA defense used that momentum to force TJ three and out, as Lekse couldn’t find any running room.

“While we had all those big plays, I think the story was our defense,” Humbert said, “That last possession of theirs, our guys were finding the creases and blowing through the line. It was a big stand.”

Humbert said there was no way he wanted to play for overtime getting the ball back with 2:10 remaining.

“A team like that, getting the ball at the 10 is nothing for them,” Humbert said. “We wanted to take our shots. We had the big play to Gedekoh, but the kid dropped it. You can’t fault him, and, luckily, that was inconsequential after Devin’s big run.”

Added Cherpak: “They got us on their formations all night. They deserved this win because they went out and they made the plays.

“I’ll tell you what, though, there was nothing like this game tonight. … Just a great football game. A great environment. I don’t think there’s any question that we’re going to see them again down the road.”

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