PEACHTREE CORNERS — For all its recent success and state playoff runs, including a Class A Private runner-up finish last season, Wesleyan’s football team did something Friday night it hadn’t done in more than a decade.
It won the region championship.
The Wolves dominated with their rushing attack and defense against one of the state’s leading passers in a 24-0 victory over Mount Vernon to claim the Region 5-A Private title, its first since the 2009 season. They take a No. 1 seed into the state playoffs next Friday, when they host Athens Christian in the first round.
Griffin Caldwell rushed 28 times for 156 yards and all three Wesleyan touchdowns.
“It’s incredible to have the opportunity to call ourselves and to call these guys region champions,” Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen said. “It’s been 11 years since we’ve been able to say that. Frankly, to reflect on where we have been and where everyone has been (with the COVID-19 pandemic), to win this region in 2020 of all years, we were talking about it in (the locker room), is emotional and really special. I’m just really looking forward to the future with these guys. I’m so proud of the Wesleyan Wolves.”
Wesleyan (8-2, 4-0) took control early for a 14-0 lead after a quarter and held a 21-0 edge at halftime while frustrating Blake Kytle and the prolific Mount Vernon (5-4, 2-1) passing attack.
Kytle had thrown for 2,219 yards through the first eight games — averaging 277 per game — but didn’t top the 100-yard mark against Wesleyan until the fourth quarter. He finished 19 of 37 for 218 yards and was sacked seven times. With all the lost yardage, Mount Vernon finished with minus-18 rushing yards.
J.D. Chipman had two sacks and three quarterback hurries, Tanner Bivins had 1 1/2 sacks and a tackle for loss and Jackson Turner had 1/2 a sack, a quarterback hurry and a tackle for loss on fourth-and-short in the first half. The shorthanded Wesleyan secondary was led by Drew Ball (three pass breakups), Will Tucker (two pass breakups) and Byrne Ahrenkiel (two pass breakups).
“I thought we defended the pass well on both ends,” Pridgen said. “We were depleted. We’ve got two starters out who would be in our secondary. Guys like Byrne Ahrenkiel did an incredible job. Drew Ball did an incredible job on Andrew Douglas, their superstar receiver. We played the ball well in the air. What I thought we did particularly well was pressure the quarterback. Their quarterback, I don’t think he enjoyed it too much. We were in the neighborhood of 17 sacks, hurries, pressures and knockdowns. That’s a big number. That’s as much a part of our pass defense as the secondary.”
The defense put Mount Vernon behind the chains on the game’s first three possessions, forcing a fourth-and-33, a fourth-and-15 and a fourth-and-12. Meanwhile, Wesleyan scored on its first two drives as the offensive line of Tanner Bivins, Banks Merkl, Will Burns, Matt Brown and Michael Soukup, along with tight end Vance Nicklaus, set the tone.
Caldwell had a 35-yard TD on the Wolves’ second offensive play, and on their second offensive possession they had a seven-play scoring drive, all runs, that ended on Caldwell’s 4-yard TD run.
Wesleyan scored with a 14-play drive just before halftime on a 1-yard run from Caldwell. Brooks Sturgeon made a 29-yard field goal for a 24-0 lead after the opening drive of the third quarter — it covered 12 plays and took 6:34 off the clock.
In addition to Caldwell’s game, quarterback Ryan Rose rushed eight times for 66 yards.
“The line of scrimmage we dominated that, especially early,” Pridgen said. “I loved the way Ryan Rose managed the offense and got involved in the run game on the zone read. Griffin, obviously, I think is one of the best running backs in our classification and keeps getting better and better and tougher and tougher.”
WESLEYAN 24, MOUNT VERNON 0
Mount Vernon 0 0 0 0 — 0
Wesleyan 14 7 3 0 — 24
Wesleyan: Griffin Caldwell 35 run (Brooks Sturgeon kick) 8:30
Wesleyan: Caldwell 4 run (Sturgeon kick) 5:00
Wesleyan: Caldwell 1 run (Sturgeon kick) 1:16
Wesleyan: Sturgeon 29 FG, 5:26
First downs 13 12
Rushes-yards 19-(-18) 39-216
Passing yards 218 36
Comp-Att-INT 19-37-0 5-12-0
Fumbles-lost 2-0 0-0
Penalties-yards 6-44 3-30
RUSHING - Mount Vernon: Syncere Harris 5-27; Liam O’Toole 2-10; Cam Jasper 1-(minus-2); Team 2-(minus-25); Blake Kytle 9-(minus-28). Wesleyan: Caldwell 28-156; Ryan Rose 8-66; Wyatt Hodges 1-0; Will Tucker 1-0; Team 1-(minus-6).
PASSING - Mount Vernon: Kytle 19-37-0, 218. Wesleyan: Rose 5-12-0, 36.
RECEIVING - Mount Vernon: Andrew Douglas 8-85; Jasper 5-63; Jonathan Gallinaro 4-41; Jack Mette 1-17; Coulton Musser 1-12. Wesleyan: Hodges 3-20; Tucker 1-12; Vance Nicklaus 1-4.