The Franklin College football team had been in this position before, and the Grizzlies didn’t like how the story concluded.
So they chose to rewrite the ending.
Last November, Franklin was at its own 1-yard line, down by five points with 3:11 remaining in its NCAA Division III playoff opener against Ohio Northern. The Grizzlies moved the ball out to their own 40 before the potential game-winning drive stalled.
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Losing that game — one that Franklin led at halftime 16-0 — left a mark. So when the team found itself in a similar situation in its 2016 season opener against Thomas More, the No. 11 team in Division III, it would have been understandable if the Grizzlies suffered a crisis of confidence.
But they did not.
Franklin was actually in a more dire situation the second time around — Thomas More was up by three points and had the ball at the Grizzlies’ 1, ready to put the game away. But defensive back Ryan Conner forced and recovered a fumble with 2:25 on the clock, and the offense followed up with an 11-play, 99-yard march to claim an unlikely 43-39 victory.
The comeback set the tone for what has been, at least so far, another strong season for the 5-1 Grizzlies.
“That game, it was a great team victory,” senior defensive back Zay Thornton said. “Even when we were down, we all stayed positive.”
Franklin was shellacked by Division I-AA foe Butler a week later 59-14, but that didn’t destroy the team’s confidence. If anything, it brought a sense of perspective. Head coach Mike Leonard noted that “it’s always good to get humbled in life,” because it provides necessary reminders that there’s always room for improvement.
The fact that the Grizzlies bounced back with a 41-6 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference win at Defiance — the first of four straight league victories — proved something, according to junior quarterback Chase Burton.
“We went against a lot of adversity in those first two (nonconference) games, so that kind of helps us out,” he said. “We know we can come back from it.”
Off last Saturday, Franklin had an extra week to do some fine-tuning heading into the home stretch of the regular season, which begins with this weekend’s home game against Rose-Hulman.
“It’s kind of a perfect time of season to just refresh,” Leonard said, “hit the refresh button, think about, ‘All right, how do we truly go win a championship? What fundamentals do we really need to re-emphasize, from ball security to tackling to blocking to hustling to all the little details?’”
Among the points of emphasis has been shoring up the running game. The Grizzlies rank fifth in the country in passing offense, and Burton’s 2,053 yards passing led the nation going into the team’s bye week, but last year’s playoff defeat made it clear that if Franklin hopes to make a deeper postseason run, it needs to be able to keep teams honest by moving the ball on the ground when the situation calls for it.
Senior running back Ty’Ronte Files said there’s still work to do in that department but that the team has made it a priority and there has been progress.
“I feel like if we had this same initiative last year, we didn’t lose that (Ohio Northern) game,” he said.
“Rushing yardage is not a necessity, but boy, it sure does open up a lot of things if you can run the ball,” Leonard added. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The Grizzlies rushed for 138 yards on 28 carries in an Oct. 8 win against Earlham, averaging a season-best 4.9 yards per carry.
Looking ahead, Franklin certainly isn’t overlooking any of its four remaining HCAC opponents, but at the same time, racking up league titles isn’t enough for this group — it knows success is defined by how you fare in the postseason, and it’s hungry for playoff success.
“We just try to make sure that everybody’s not complacent with winning the Heartland conference,” Thornton said. “Because yeah, we win it every year, but being that we win it every year, we need to do more.”
That means finally cracking that ceiling and getting past the first or second round of the Division III playoffs. The hope is that by hitting that refresh button these past two weeks and tightening up the little things, the Grizzlies will be well positioned to extend their season into December.
“We’re as good as we can make ourselves,” Files said. “We want to win a national championship, and I feel like we have a team that can do that.”
The remainder of Franklin College’s regular-season football schedule:
Oct. 29;at Mt. St. Joseph;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 5;at Anderson;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 12;Hanover;1:30 p.m.