ROSWELL — Wesleyan’s football team had an almost perfect game on offense.
The Wolves scored eight touchdowns on their first nine possessions in a 56-20 romp over previously undefeated Fellowship Christian in Friday's Class A Private semifinals. Wesleyan will play for a state championship for the first time since 2010, and it did it the hard way after not receiving a bye to open the playoffs.
"I'm telling you right now, it was a gift that we got the ninth seed," Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. "We were in a rhythm, and it never broke. We had a character win in the first round, and we've been building on it ever since. I love the way things turned out."
It was wire-to-wire domination, as Wesleyan’s defense made a huge statement right from the jump.
Cooper Blauser intercepted Eli Hildebrandt’s pass on the first snap of the game, giving the Wolves a short field.
The turnover set Wesleyan up at the Fellowship Christian 27, and it only took them four plays to find the end zone. J.C. French capped the drive off with a 2-yard quarterback sneak, the first of his three rushing touchdowns.
But as dangerous as French was on the ground with the two rushing scores, a lot of it was keeping the defense honest to set up bigger things in the passing game.
French launched one deep ball after another in the first half, taking advantage of a lack of safety help over the middle of the field. He completed two of them to Micah Smith for gains of 42 and 48 yards respectively, and drew a pair of pass interference calls on two more similar deep shots.
"I watched film all week and saw how they (the cornerbacks) were playing off a little," Smith said. "Their corners like to play up a little bit, so I attacked their back foot and hit them outside."
The first of those deep balls to Smith set the Wolves up in the red zone on their second possession, and this time it was Griffin Caldwell who slammed the ball into the end zone from two yards out.
Caldwell provided Wesleyan’s best offense of the night outside of French’s deep passing, rushing for 122 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns.
Wesleyan succumbed to Fellowship Christian’s fast-paced ground attack once, allowing the Paladins to climb back into the game with an 80-yard drive late in the opening quarter. It took 12 plays to score, and all 12 plays came on the ground before Josh Cole made it into the end zone with a 6-yard run off left tackle.
But there was no panic from the Wolves. Caldwell and French went right back to work, taking turns delivering body blows to the Fellowship Christian defense. It took nine snaps and just under three minutes for the 14-point lead to be restored, as Caldwell’s second 2-yard TD run in as many possessions turned the heat right back up on Fellowship Christian’s offense.
This time, there was no answer.
Connor O’Sullivan hit Hildebrant for a clutch third down sack, and the first play of the ensuing drive was French’s second big shot to Smith. French found the end zone again four plays later, and Wesleyan went into halftime with a 28-7 lead and four touchdowns on four possessions.
"It was all about team defense," Pridgen said. "We were running to the ball, never giving up, and understanding the importance of being physical every single play. And we have a great defensive coordinator in Chip Myrick."
The second half started just as the first did for Wesleyan, as it seized control right from the opening snap. French hit Blauser for a 48-yard pass, and those two connected again for a 5-yard TD just four plays later. The drive took just 1:37, and gave the Wolves breathing room before one final rally from the home team.
Jayven Hall ripped off a 50-yard run to give the Paladins a little bit of hope, and their first three-and-out of the game was followed by another run from Hall to cut the deficit to 15.
But Wesleyan followed the same recipe they had been using all night to restore order. Chunk plays of 32 and 23 yards to Smith moved them down into the red zone, and a quarterback keeper from French finished the drive and made it 42-20 Wolves late in the third quarter.
"We felt like passing is a strength of ours," Pridgen said. "We felt like it's not something that they do philosophically. We thought it was something we could exploit."
French tacked on one more score to his sparkling performance with a perfectly weighted pass to Andrew Van Wie, and the junior receiver scored on his first reception of the night. Another touchdown from Blauser put the Wolves over 50 points with 446 yards of offense to go with it.
The Wolves will try to take the final step next week against Eagle's Landing Christian, which delivered them a 54-17 loss back in October. But this offense is clicking on all cylinders, and they're ready to flip the script at Georgia State Stadium.
"I think we've improved a ton on offense," French said. "Let's go win state."
WESLEYAN 56, FELLOWSHIP CHRISTIAN 20
Wesleyan 14 14 14 14 — 56
Fellowship Christian 7 0 13 0 — 20
Wesleyan: J.C. French 2 run (Javy Martinez kick) 10:26
Wesleyan: Griffin Caldwell 2 run (Martinez kick) 6:13
Fellowship Christian: Josh Cole 6 run (Matt Rodgers kick) 1:48
Wesleyan: Caldwell 2 run (Martinez kick) 10:11
Wesleyan: French 3 run (Martinez kick) 4:50
Wesleyan: Cooper Blauser 5 pass from French (Martinez kick) 10:17
Fellowship Christian: Jayven Hall 50 run (Rodgers kick) 9:11
Fellowship Christian: Hall 9 run (kick failed) 4:41
Wesleyan: French 2 run (Martinez kick) 1:16
Wesleyan: Andrew Van Wie 34 pass from French (Martinez kick) 8:39
Wesleyan: Blauser 15 run (Martinez kick) 6:08