It was a dash to the finish, much like an Olympic track meet.
Playing at home before a capacity crowd on Tribute to Service Day, the Franklin College football team ran its Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference record to 2-0 with a 44-38 come-from-behind win against previously undefeated Bluffton on Saturday.
From the opening kickoff, when Bluffton won the toss and elected to defer, Franklin knew it was in a fight with a very good opponent.
The Beavers wasted little time converting their first possession into a 19-yard Jordan Watkins field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
The Grizzlies, ranked No. 20 in the latest D3football.com poll, answered quickly with a 5-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Chase Burton to junior Lee Wroblewski for a 7-3 advantage.
Back and forth they went — each standing tall in the center of the ring.
Bluffton reached halftime with a 21-17 lead, and the talk in the Grizzlies’ locker room centered on what Franklin coach Mike Leonard described as “finishing this thing together.”
“When bad things start happening to teams or individuals, it’s easy to start complaining about the other side,” Leonard explained. “The blame game is real easy — the offense complaining about the defense not stopping them or the defense complaining about the offense not moving the ball, and they self-destruct.
“We’re not going to let that happen. We’re going to encourage one another and finish this thing strong together.”
What turned the tide for the Grizzlies were three defensive turnovers that resulted in touchdowns.
Interceptions by junior linebacker Nathan Warman and senior defensive back Taylor Christensen were the motivational mustard the Grizzlies offense needed.
Warman’s third-quarter pick was not only timely, but instrumental.
“They were running slants and outs and I just got back in my zone and he threw it right to me,” said Warman, who also recovered a fumble.
Christensen, a three-year starter for the Grizzlies, said the defensive effort in the second half was just what the doctor ordered.
“Bluffton has very good wide receivers and they were taking their shots at us like we knew they would,” Christensen said. “We’ve always got a target on our backs because we’re Franklin and everyone wants to give us their best. We’ve got to be ready for that.”
Both teams racked up big numbers on offense.
Burton, last year’s HCAC offensive player of the year, was 25 of 41 through the air for 327 yards and four touchdowns.
On the ground, Franklin rushed for 133 yards, with junior Ty’Ronte Files leading the way with 87 yards. That total included a 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave the Grizzlies a 41-31 cushion.
Bluffton quarterback Conner Sheehan threw four touchdown passes while completing 40 of 51 attempts overall for 463 yards. His top receiver, Micah Roberson, had 18 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown.
After the game, Leonard breathed a sigh of relief, and in the same breath gave credit to the Bluffton attack.
“Turnovers, three big ones in the course of the game, were the difference,” he said. “Give Bluffton and coach (Denny) Dorrel a lot of credit. They came in here with a will that they were going to win — but our guys did too.
“I don’t know that we played as well as we possibly could, but we’ve just to figure out a way to get a little more out of our guys as we hit midseason.”
The Grizzlies (3-1) will be at conference rival Manchester this Saturday.