Winning the Victory Bell was nice. Winning the conference was nicer. Winning in the postseason, however, is the ultimate objective of the Franklin College football team.
And opportunity is at hand.
Saturday, the unranked Grizzlies travel to No. 14 Wabash for a first-round game in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Playoff participants for the seventh time in the past seven years, they are looking to advance to the second round for the fourth straight season.
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If momentum counts for anything, the Grizzlies (8-2) are positioned to continue on.
Two weeks ago, they locked up their fifth consecutive Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and accompanying automatic tournament bid. Last week, they completed a sweep of HCAC opponents in the Victory Bell Classic with a 49-33 victory against archrival Hanover.
Now, they are primed for the playoffs — and for Wabash (9-1) in particular.
“The conference and bell game are always our first two goals each year, but I believe that we are hungry for a little more,” said senior quarterback Grant Welp, selected this week as the HCAC’s Offensive Most Valuable Player.
“The tournament is what we prepare for all year, so we have to simply do individual jobs to the best of our ability, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Junior linebacker Lucas Wendell echoed the sentiment.
“Now that we’ve won conference, we are focusing on one game at a time, because that’s all we are guaranteed now,” said Wendell, the Grizzlies’ leading tackler. “We will focus each week on what we need to do to get us to the (championship) final.”
Playing Wabash for the first time in seven years, the teams played a two-game series in 2006 and 2007. Franklin won in the closing seconds of the 2006 showdown and lost in the closing seconds of the 2007 rematch.
Franklin coach Mike Leonard expects another slugfest in this, the third meeting between the state’s top two Division III programs. And he’s confident the Grizzlies are ready for the challenge.
“We feel good. We’re relatively healthy, which is a good thing this stage of the year,” said Leonard, who’s in his 12th season at Franklin. “We’re just excited about the draw, being able to play close to home, in state, (against a) natural rival, two of the most successful Division III programs in the state the past six, seven, eight years.
“This is a good rivalry.”
On paper, the teams appear to be evenly matched.
Although unranked, the Grizzlies’ only losses were against nonconference opponents, both of which were ranked at the time. They lost to Illinois Wesleyan — which has since dropped out of the rankings — in the season-opener and were defeated the following week against No. 1 Wisconsin-Whitewater, the defending national champion.
Franklin hasn’t lost since.
Wabash, which received an at-large bid to the tournament, finished runner-up in the North Coast Atlantic Conference. It’s only loss was against league champion Wittenberg, ranked No. 12 in the final top 25 poll.
Although the Little Giants have a versatile, talented offense, their chief strength is on the other side of the ball.
“Their defense is one of the best defenses in the country,” Leonard said. “We’re going to have to do our best to stay out of long-yardage situations, because they’ll blitz you and sack you.”
Franklin counters with one of the country’s most explosive offenses — one that averages 41.8 points and 477.yards per game.
Leading the way is Welp, who has thrown for 3,127 yards and 31 touchdowns. He also has rushed for 366 yards and eight scores.
But he isn’t the only weapon.
Senior receivers Jonny Hession and Zach Cole and senior running back Joey Pasquale, along with senior offensive linemen Austin Carlton and Quinton Terrell, are first-team all-HCAC performers who have been instrumental in the Grizzlies’ success.
Defensively, the Grizzlies are led by senior defensive back Jameson Brock, junior tackle Nate Bryan, junior linebacker Jeremiah Wendell and sophomore defensive back Taylor Christensen, who also were selected first-team all-HCAC. Lucas Wendell, Jeremiah’s twin brother, was selected to the second team.
“Our confidence is high,” Jeremiah Wendell said. “Winning conference was a big goal for us, and achieving it is going to propel our efforts toward this Saturday’s game. We have the ‘next game’ mentality.
“They’re just another opponent we have to face.”
What: First-round NCAA Division III tournament game, Franklin (8-2) vs. Wabash (9-1)
When: Noon Saturday