Welton's passing leads Wesleyan to first title game

NORCROSS - Faced with clutch situations throughout its Class A state semifinal game against Lincoln County, Wesleyan simply found a way each time.

With the visiting Red Devils and a shoulder injury slowing down Kyle Karempelis and the Wolves' running game, Conor Welton and the passing game stepped up big.

The junior quarterback completed 17 of 27 passes for 151 yards and three touchdowns and the Wolves willed their way to a 20-12 win Friday night at Henderson Stadium, sending them to their first state championship game next week at the Georgia Dome.

"Every week, someone steps up that we don't anticipate," said Wesleyan head coach Franklin Pridgen, whose team advanced to take on top-ranked Emanuel County Institute next Saturday at 2 p.m. for the title. "That's the way this team is. We play together and believe in each other."

In this case, it was Welton and his receivers who stepped up.

Karempelis managed 80 yards on 21 carries despite a shoulder injury sustained on the second-half kickoff and a Lincoln County (12-2) defense designed to stop him.

But with the Red Devils focused so much on the sophomore running back, Welton picked apart their secondary, connecting with six different receivers and coming up with several clutch plays as the Wolves (12-2) were 7 of 12 on third-down conversions.

"We knew we had to throw a little bit more, and we put in a few more pass plays this week," Welton said. "Throughout the playoffs, we've had receivers making big catches on third and fourth down."

The two biggest plays came when Welton was forced to improvise.

The first came when he rolled to his left under heavy pressure and floated a pass that Brent Pugh snagged and came down with for a 24-yard gain on third-and-8 from the Wesleyan 30-yard line on the Wolves' first possession of the second half.

That kept a drive alive that turned into a 10-play, 72-yard march, capped by Welton's 13-yard scoring strike to Bobby Worthington to put Wesleyan in front 13-6 with 7:11 left in the third quarter. Worthington finished with four catches for 28 yards.

Lincoln County answered with a nine-play, 60-yard drive that ended with Jafabian Green's 22-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-inches with 2:55 left in the quarter.

But the Wolves stopped E.G. Middlebrooks short on the two-point conversion, keeping them in front at 13-12.

The second big conversion came with the Wolves clinging to that lead early in the fourth quarter and facing a decision on fourth-and-6 from the Lincoln County 20.

With Pridgen eschewing a field goal in the December chill, Welton avoided a rush and found Drew Cardwell, who slipped through a tackle inside the 20 and not only picked up the first down, but dashed into the end zone for a touchdown that extended the lead to 20-12 with 7:39 left. Cardwell finished the night with a game-high 48 yards on three catches.

"The main read was a wheel pass and a drag route over the middle," Welton said. "Our line fanned (the Lincoln County rush) outside and Dan ran a rip route, and I just dumped it off to him."

The Wesleyan defense then came with two big plays to preserve the lead.

First, Drew Fithian forced a fumble after Bo Reed's 6-yard completion to C.J. Jones, which Carter Garrison recovered on the Wesleyan 31 with 5 minutes remaining.

Then, Cardwell snuffed out Lincoln County's last hope by intercepting a Reed pass with with 1:40 to play, and the Wolves were able to run out the clock.

Lincoln County struck quickly on its second possession of the game as Middlebrooks dashed around the left end and outran the Wesleyan defense 75 yards for a touchdown. Middlebrooks finished with 121 yards on 15 carries.

The extra point was wide right, but the Red Devils had a 6-0 lead with 6:56 left in the first quarter.

They tried to extend their lead on the next possession, but a 42-yard field goal attempt was well short, giving Wesleyan the ball back at its own 20 just before the end of the quarter.

The Wolves then embarked on an 80-yard drive that took 16 plays and drained the next 8:20 off the clock, with Wesleyan converting four different third-down situations.

The last one was the most critical and came two plays after a penalty nullified Conor Welton's 1-yard touchdown sneak.

This time, Welton found Anderson Porter in the end zone for a 6-yard score. But after two encroachment penalties, Wesleyan missed the point after and the game remained tied 6-6 with 4:20 left in the first half.