In reviewing its 2020 record, what jumps off the page about Jeannette is where the Jayhawks’ season started and where it is 10 weeks later.
After losing their season-opener to perennial power Clairton (34-27) the Jayhawks jolted 9 consecutive opponents – including Clairton. Last week Jeannette crushed Clairton, 45-14, for its first WPIAL crown since 2017.
By virtue of that victory – vaulting it atop at least one statewide poll – Jeannette (9-1) travels to Transfer to take on Reynolds (9-0) in the PIAA Class 1A Final Four Friday at 7 p.m.
Gushed Reynolds Head Coach Josh Mull, “Jeannette is the real deal! They are a solid football team.”
However Mull-led Reynolds may have received a reprieve. In Tuesday’s Trib Live (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) it was reported Jeannette freshman quarterback Brad Birch likely will be sidelined.
Birch was wearing a cast on his left ankle after suffering an undisclosed injury during the recent clobbering of Clairton. Trib Live reported the injury occurred during Jeannette’s first 2nd-half possession on Birch’s 10-yard run. Birch rushed for a team-high 63 yards and completed 5 of 13 passes for 46 yards and a TD.
According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Birch has completed 108 of 184 pass attempts for 1,676 yards and 28 TDs and rushed 63 times for 272 yards (4.3 per-carry) this season.
Prior to Tuesday’s revelation, mentor Mull characterized Jeannette as “Offensively, a Spread team and they effectively run and throw the football. They have great team speed and have various players that can score from anywhere on the field at any time.”
Roberto Smith (101 carries, 746 yards, 7.4 per-carry) and Jaydin Canady (37-294, 7.9) complement Birch in the ground game. Birch’s top aerial targets include Toby Cline (33-513, 15.5), James Sanders (26-398, 15.3) and Kaelan Piscar (20-291, 14.5). Smith has scored 124 points (18 TDs, 13 PATs, 1 field goal), while Birch and Cline have contributed 10 TDs apiece and Sanders has scored 9.
Jeannette has outscored opponents by a composite 520-137 differential.
But Birch’s injury – he told Trib Live he believed he could play – would alter that dynamic. Jayhawks’ Head Coach Roy Hall said he and Offensive Coordinator Ryan Reitz were preparing Smith or Sanders to take snaps. Smith, as a signal-caller, has seen some action this season. He did toss a TD against Clairton. Trib Live reported Sanders passed for 1,357 yards and 16 TDs in 2019 before Birch arrived.
“On defense,” Mull assessed, “(the Jayhawks) employ an odd-stack 3-3-5. Although we have the size advantage, they are aggressive, read well, and bring heat from all over.”
To Mull’s point, Jeannette’s Canady clipped Clairton for a 40-yard scoop ‘n score last week, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He added a second score, recovering a blocked punt. Jeannette coerced Clairton into a half-dozen miscues.
“I think, defensively we played great,” Hall told The Post-Gazette. “We had some defensive touchdowns, a lot of turnovers. Our defense has played better and better each week. … Offense wins games and defense wins championships, and that showed. ... The defense played tremendous.”
“The coaches wanted us to come in here strong, and that’s what we did,” Canady told The Post-Gazette. “We did our objectives, and we got the ‘dub’ (W). Clairton beat us the first time. We lowered our penalties, and that’s what helped us.”
The game will mark just the second state semifinals appearance in Reynolds’ grid program annals. The 2005 season culminated in a school standard 11 wins, but a setback to South Park.
In last week’s 19-14 win over Redbank Valley Reynolds ran roughshod. The Raiders rolled to a 239-63 edge on the ground, led by Cole Toy’s 27-carry, 133-yard, 1-TD performance. Currently Toy’s total stands at 2,897 career rushing yards.
Also against Redbank Valley, Toy’s senior classmate, Aidan Mull, mustered a pair of TDs on a 4-yard run and 43-yard reception from Brayden McCloskey. Mull, Jalen Wager and Dreyvin Livingston lent rushing yards to complement Toy.
“We challenged our other backs to step up early and take the heat off Cole,” mentor Mull explained. “They all contributed for that to happen – Jalen Wagner had a big run on first-and-fifteen to spark the first touchdown drive. The backs collectively did a good job blocking a very big and physical Redbank Valley defense. (The Bulldogs) blitzed a two-hundred-pound linebacker and one-hundred-and-forty-pound Livingston, and a hundred-and-sixty-five-pound Wagner picked up the blitz to keep us moving the football.”
Reynolds roared to a 13-0, 2nd-stanza lead as Aidan Mull’s pair of scores sandwiched a recovered muffed kickoff.
“I am sure that, if asked, Aidan would say that the line and his teammates’ blocking allowed him to be successful,” Coach Mull said. “And on the pass for a touchdown – smart players make smart choices. Aidan adjusted his route and Brayden put it on the money.
The Raiders turned over Redbank Valley 3 times and muzzled the Bulldogs’ offense, limiting it to 164 total yards.
“We had great play out of our defensive line to stop the run and great play out of our defensive backs, as well,” mentor Mull praised, adding, “Quinton Earley and Gavin Alabran came up big on special teams. Simply put, It was a great team victory.”
With few exceptions the Raiders have routed foes, outscoring 9 opponents by an aggregate 346-80 margin. But Jeannette will be a jump in the caliber of competition.
“I am hopeful that our team does not get intimidated by this being a state (semi)final,” Mull admitted. “We have a ton of first-hand experience with being in semifinals – although that is on the (wrestling) mat and not the gridiron. I truly feel that the wrestlers on the team will help elevate the game of the others and take that factor out of the equation.
“Getting out of our own way will be super-important, since the opponent doesn’t get much better,” Mull said regarding Jeannette. “It will be an honor for our team to compete with one of the historic football teams of the WPIAL.
“In order to be successful Friday night we are going to have to control the ball with long, sustained drives. The old adage, ‘Three yards and a cloud of dust” is a necessity. We will need to gain three- and four-yard chunks to keep the chains moving. With that, penalties are something we must avoid at all costs.”
In the afterglow of crushing Clairton, Hall told The Post-Gazette, “We did that to the number one team in the state. Gotta have a little luck on our team. We can get healthy coming back. Sky’s the limit. Who knows?”
Earlier this week after learning of Birch’s status Hall told Trib Live, “I’m confident both (Smith and Sanders) will do a good job if Brad can’t play. Ryan (Reitz) has all three taking snaps during the week.”
Notes: This is the 4th time Jeannette has reached the PIAA playoffs, advancing to the finals in 2006, ‘07 and 2017, according to Trib Live. The Terrelle Pryor-led Jayhawks won over Wilmington in ‘06 and ‘07 in Class AA, then defeated Farrell in Class 1A in 2017.