Undefeated TJ prepares for Mars’ ‘very concerning’ ground game
There’s little history between the football programs at Thomas Jefferson and Mars, yet there’s one thing they will be sure to have in common when they meet in the WPIAL Class AAA quarterfinals Friday night at Chartiers Valley.
Both teams adore the run.
No. 2 Thomas Jefferson (10-0) likes the ground game even more so than No. 10 Mars (7-3), a decided underdog playing in the quarterfinals for the third consecutive year.
“They don’t throw the ball a whole lot,” Mars coach Scott Heinauer said. “They want to run the football, and that’s kind of what we want to do.”
Thomas Jefferson almost never passes, making just 27 attempts all year from its wildcat formation.
Coach Bill Cherpak prefers his team snap the ball directly to workhorse running back Austin Kemp, who has returned to the Jaguars’ lineup following a separated shoulder to regain the WPIAL rushing lead with 1,794 yards.
“It’s just what we’ve done all along, and it’s been successful,” said Cherpak, whose team has assembled three consecutive undefeated regular seasons.
A victory Friday would advance the Jaguars into the WPIAL semifinals for the 16th time in 17 seasons.
But with Mars looming, don’t tell Cherpak his team is expected to roll through another opponent — Thomas Jefferson routed No. 15 Moon, 49-14, in the first round behind 224 yards rushing and three touchdowns from Kemp. The coach is concerned with how the Jaguars will respond.
“This is a little different look for us,” Cherpak said, referring to Mars’ version of a wing-T offense. “What they do is different than what we ever see. It’s very concerning because we’re asking our defensive guys to de-program themselves. It’s tough, it really is.
“They give you a lot of different looks, and we’re trying to get our guys to learn to identify with it. The worst thing we want to happen is to be outmatched and outnumbered if we’re not lined up right. They run a lot of unbalance, and we haven’t seen that.”
Mars advanced in a 42-27 upset of No. 7 Montour in the first round, when Ori Rinaman rushed for 239 yards and scored all six touchdowns for the Planets, the longest of 35 yards out of the wing-T.
“He doesn’t go down easy. He’s always falling forward,” Cherpak said. “They’ve tailored things to do what they do best, and he’s a big part of it now. He usually breaks the first tackle and then some, and he can run with some speed. He’s a different type of back than what we’re used to in the slashers we see in our league. He’s got speed and instincts.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Rinaman, who has rushed for 1,242 yards this year, took over as Mars’ featured runner when fellow senior Josh Schultheis suffered a broken leg during the Planets’ season-opening loss to Indiana.
Heinauer has been impressed with the Planets’ resiliency after the loss of Schultheis for the season, notably Rinaman’s smooth transition to fullback from wingback.
“The sad part of this thing is we would’ve had a real nice 1-2 punch,” Heinauer said. “Sure, Josh would have been the guy to get the ball more times than not. But Ori has come in and done a great job of carrying the load.”
Schultheis entered the season having gained more than 3,300 yards rushing after a junior year that produced 1,687 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Thomas Jefferson is dealing with injuries of its own, the most glaring being running back Ryan Scanlon (broken collarbone) and wide receiver Frankie Langan (bruised knee).
“It’s going to be interesting,” Heinauer said. “TJ is power football, and hopefully, we can stop that.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].