BELLE VERNON – Rarely does a football game live up to the hype like Belle Vernon’s 28-21 win over Thomas Jefferson Friday night between two of the top ranked teams in the state.
The game saw four lead changes from the last minute of the first half on, and the Leopards (4-0, 2-0) pulled out one of the most thrilling wins in program history with a last second win over the Jaguars (3-1, 1-1) in the Big Eight Conference showdown.
“It is bittersweet because there is so much football left,” said BV head coach Matt Humbert. “The irony is we have been through this story before where we get them in the regular season and then the post-season is a different animal.
“I think we need to hone in on what we are doing and get better each week because we know the real season begins in November.”
BV defeated TJ during the regular season in both 2015 and 2017 only to lose to the Jaguars in the playoffs.
BV’s Devin Whitlock and Quinton Martin, the two dynamos’ that make BV go, both did their part, although the Leopards experienced a loss in the win as Martin suffered an injury in the third quarter and did not return.
Whitlock, the unquestioned leader of the Leopards, scored two touchdowns in the last 4:07, including the game winner with four seconds to go, to help BV secure the massive in.
“This is the biggest win of the season, but we are right back to it Sunday with no days off,” Whitlock said. At the end of the game, a lot of people on my team are relying on me and I know I have to step it up to help get the win.”
Humbert spoke about Martin’s injury and how Whitlock stepped up.
“I told Q when he came off the field that we were going to get him the win,” Humbert said. “Whitlock needed to pick up the slack and it was all hands-on deck. The guys picked up the slack and didn’t miss a beat when Q went out.”
Trailing 28-21 in the closing minutes, Whitlock scored on a 42-yard run to tie the game at 21 with 4:07. The drive went 76 yards on nine plays.
Then, after forcing a TJ punt that gave BV the ball at its own 38, it was able to advance to the TJ 40.
On fourth down with BV set up with three receivers to the right, Whitlock ran a sweep left and went 40 yards with the winning touchdown with four seconds to go.
“The whole night, when we were emptying the backfield, we had our buck sweep with the quarterback,” said Humbert. “Thomas Jefferson did a good job of stopping that play.
“Sometimes (Whitlock) running the football is just as good as the splash plays you need. It worked out.”
Early on, BV missed out on a chance to capitalize on excellent field position.
After a TJ punt on the first drive of the game, BV took over at the Jaguar 49. The Leopards got as far as the TJ 22, but it came away without points.
TJ fumbled on the very next play at BV’s 24, and Jake Gedekoh gave the Leopards excellent field position.
However, the Leps once again came away without points.
After TJ’s next punt, BV took over at midfield and the Leps finally took advantage of excellent field position.
On the first play, Martin raced 50 yards to give BV the first score of the game, and Tyler Kovatch’s extra point gave the Leps a 7-0 lead with 1:36 to play in the first quarter and the score held into the second.
TJ took over on the next drive and countered Martin’s first score.
The Jaguars went 75 yards on a 12-play drive that took 5:37 off the clock.
TJ quarterback Joe Lekse scored from two yards out and Michael Inks’ extra point tied the game with 7:59 to go in the half.
The Jaguars forced a BV punt in the next possession and TJ seemed to take control of the game.
After taking over at the BV 38, the Jaguars took the lead with 1:04 to play in the half when Lekse scored from two yards out.
The extra point was wide left, and the Jaguars held a 13-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Martin, one of the top sophomores in the country, took the kick and raced 88 yards for his second score of the game and the Kovatch kick gave BV a 14-13 at the half.
During the opening 24 minutes, TJ gained 170 yards on 34 plays while BV had 95 yards on 15 plays, with 50 of those yards on Martin’s touchdown run.
Neither team scored in the third quarter as both teams lost the ball on turnovers.
However, the biggest loss in the frame was Martin who left after being hit in his knee on a carry with 9:16 to go in the quarter.
TJ, which took possession with 0:42 left in the third, went on a seven-play drive and took scored on a fourth-and-seven quarterback draw by Lekse from 19 yards out with 8:33 to play.
The quarterback followed with a two-point sweep to the right to give the Jaguars a 21-14 lead, setting up the dramatic finish.
BV finished with 296 yards on 46 plays while TJ ended with 232 yards on 50 plays.
Whitlock finished with 171 yards on 21 carries while Lekse rushed for 115 yards on 21 carries.
Humber and Whitlock both spoke about the environment between the two fan bases.
“The atmosphere we can enjoy pregame when fans are filling in but once the game started, we didn’t pay any attention to it,” said Humbert. “I am glad the communities were able to engage in this; it was nice to see them on a Friday night.”
Whitlock chimed in.
“This environment was like a college atmosphere, and I can’t wait until November,” he said. “But we are going to be focused on Laurel Highlands.”