PEACHTREE CORNERS — Wesleyan was on its own 40, facing fourth-and-five on the opening drive of the second half.
Head coach Franklin Pridgen got gutsy and faked the punt.
Senior lineman Josh Aspinwall barreled though the line and dashed 46 yards on a game-changing call.
The Wolves scored on the next play, a 14-yard run by Griffin Caldwell, and broke away from Savannah Christian. The sophomore back rushed for three more touchdowns in the second half and Wesleyan rolled into the Class A Private semifinals with a 42-16 victory at home Friday.
“To a guard,” Pridgen said of the play call. “And I'd do it again. I've been doing this long enough that I know turnovers, fake punts, big plays can be turning points. You couple that with just the right point in the game and you can almost feel, it's almost palpable, the energy starts to tip.
“Josh Aspinwall has been wanted to run it forever. He said to me, 'If you'll call it, I'll make it work.'”
Caldwell rushed for nearly 200 yards and four second-half touchdowns on 25 carries. Micah Smith made a number of exceptional receptions, with huge yards after the catch in the first half.
“It was a very, very strong statement in the running game and that always starts with (the offensive line),” Pridgen said. “Griffin did an incredible job. He's becoming a real workhorse, but he'll be the first one to tell you the offensive line opens up holes. I love the way our run game is designed — it's a credit to Lee Rider and Jason Turner. It's also the fruit of a balanced passing attack."
Up next is a road trip to unbeaten Fellowship Christian, which held off a feisty Hebron Christian.
“We're going to need all those tools in the box next week,” Pridgen said.
Wesleyan got off to a strong start on both sides of the ball, but mistakes left the Wolves with a scant 14-10 lead at halftime.
Then they dominated the second half, sparked by the success of the fake punt.
“I don't know if we just settled down,” Pridgen said. “I trust our staff. They get a chance to analyze a team and they make great adjustments. But I like the way we played in the first half. I liked the fact that we responded to their score with one of our own after they went up 10-7. That was gutsy.
“I have adored the grit if this team all season and I think that's a huge part of our identity. Maybe that shows itself more in the second half.”
Savannah Christian went three-and-out on its first series and Wesleyan drove 62 yards on six quick plays to take a 7-0 lead.
Sophomore quarterback J.C. French scampered for nine yards to start the drive and completed an 18-yard swing pass to Wyatt Hodges to cap it. In between, French had a 14-yard run and connected with Smith on the outside for a 16-yard gain.
The Wolves forced Savannah Christian to punt again and were driving smoothly when French fumbled the ball and turned it over on the Raiders' 29.
Quarterback Spencer Robicheaux led Savannah Christian on a nine-play scoring series that spanned the quarter break. The junior completed a 21-yard pass to Ely Brown on third-and-nine to extend the drive.
Marquell Brown ripped off a 23-yard run to put the Raiders on the doorstep. Dawson Benton plunged the final three yards to tie the game 7-7 at 10:50 of the second quarter.
“(Brown) is an incredible running back,” Pridgen said. “He is the fastest, most elusive we've faced and it's hard for us to simulate someone like that in practice. So it takes us a little time.
“We got off to a great start, but they probed our defense and found something they liked. He went off a few times and we turned the ball over to set them up. It's the state of Georgia. It's deep in the playoffs. Of course the other team is going to make plays.”
Wesleyan's Trent Bartlett intercepted Robicheaux, but another gaffe negated it. The Wolves were called for roughing the passer and a second personal foul which equalled a 30-yard mistake that carried the Raiders inside the red zone. Wesleyan's run defense stepped up and forced Savannah Christian to settle for a 31-yard field goal.
With 3:19 left on the clock, the Wolves used another big play to Smith to spark a go-ahead drive.
French found the senior receiver for a 32-yard gain that quickly carried the Wolves over midfield. Smith caught a nine-yard pass and sprinted for 10 more yards to put Wesleyan in the red zone. The Wolves ground out the remaining 16 yards on runs by Caldwell and French.
The sophomore QB powered the final yard for the 14-10 lead with 44.5 seconds remaining.
Savannah Christian nearly orchestrated an answer in the final minute, propelled by a 37-yard completion from Robicheaux to George Futch, but a 34-yard field goal was low.
WESLEYAN 42, SAVANNAH CHRISTIAN 16
Savannah Christian 0 10 0 6 — 16
Wesleyan 7 7 14 14 — 42
Wesleyan: Wyatt Hodges 18 pass from J.C. French (Javy Martinez kick) 8:45
Savannah Christian: Dawson Benton 3 run (Conner Graham kick) 10:50
Savannah Christian: Graham 31 FG, 3:19
Wesleyan: French 1 run (Martinez kick) :44
Wesleyan: Griffin Caldwell 14 run (Martinez kick) 9:33
Wesleyan: Caldwell 7 run (Martinez kick) 1:17
Wesleyan: Caldwell 2 run (Martinez kick) 6:13
Savannah Christian: Spencer Robicheaux 4 run (conversion failed) 3:36
Wesleyan: Caldwell 9 run (Martinez kick) 2:03