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Bell, berth on line for Grizzlies in HCAC finale

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Franklin College football coach Mike Leonard encourages the Grizzlies during a Sept. 1 game visiting University of Mount Union. Franklin will host Hanover for the annual Victory Bell game Saturday.
Franklin College football coach Mike Leonard encourages the Grizzlies during a Sept. 1 game visiting University of Mount Union. Franklin will host Hanover for the annual Victory Bell game Saturday. FILE

Incentives? There’s no shortage of those.

Bragging rights, a coveted trophy and a trip to the postseason all are on the line Saturday when the Franklin College football team hosts Hanover in the annual Victory Bell Classic.

Win, and the Grizzlies advance to the postseason for a third straight year and for the fifth time in the past six. Lose, they stay home and hand the Victory Bell to the Panthers for the first time in eight seasons.

Stakes simply don’t get higher than that.

The Grizzlies don’t need a reminder.

“It’s the Bell game. It’s been a rivalry for over a century,” said senior co-captain Brooks Bemis, a three-year starting offensive lineman from Center Grove. “It means a lot more than a normal game because of the rivalry and also because it’s deciding who gets to go to the playoffs.

“It’s got a lot riding on it.”

The only unbeaten team inside the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, Franklin (7-2, 7-0 HCAC) will earn sole possession of the league championship and an automatic NCAA Division III tournament bid with a victory. Lose, and the Grizzlies would not only share the title but forfeit the Victory Bell and the playoff spot to Hanover (6-3, 6-1 HCAC).

Ranked No. 16 in the d3football.com Top 25, the Grizzlies have no intention of surrendering anything to their arch rival. But at the same time, they take nothing for granted.

“We’re going to go into the game knowing that we’ve prepared well, and we expect to win,” 10th-year Franklin coach Mike Leonard said. “At the same time, sure things seldom are. That’s the big quote that I’m pulling from the past, ‘Sure things seldom are.’

“Any week in any sport, you’ll find upsets.”

Still, the Grizzlies are confident of not being on the wrong end of one.

Although they are coming off two of their most uneven performances of the season, they have won 25 straight HCAC games and have been especially strong defensively. They have blanked three of their past five opponents and have given up 20 or more points only three times. One of those occasions was against No. 1 Mount Union. Another was against Division I Football Championship Subdivision Butler.

Renowned for prolific offense, the Grizzlies have given up a combined 23 points against their past five opponents.

“You’re going to win a lot of football games if your offense just takes care of the football and finds ways to put it across the goal line with a defense playing that well,” Leonard said, noting the critical role of the defense in the past two games.

Two weeks ago, the Grizzlies broke open in the second half what had been a close game at Defiance for a 35-14 win. Last week, the defense kept visiting Bluffton in check during a 23-9 victory. The game was tied at 6 at halftime.

The past two games were in stark contrast to the previous three, when the Grizzlies routed Mount St. Joseph (38-0), Anderson (69-0) and Rose-Hulman (56-0).

“The last couple games we’ve had some great battles. It felt good to actually be in some football games where every play was important, and it hinged in the third quarter,” Leonard said. “We need those kinds of games to prepare us for this game, because it will be that kind of back-and-forth battle. That’s what we expect.

“We know Hanover’s going to come in here and give us a great game. We have to be able to respond, as well, and give them a great game right back.”

Although the Grizzlies have dominated the series in recent years, Hanover still has the overall edge. The Panthers lead the all-time series, which began in 1898 and was on hiatus between 1972 and 1988, 42-36-3.

Moreover, Hanover leads 35-20 in Victory Bell games.

“We’re very confident. We’ve had a great week of practice. We’re taking this week very serious,” Bemis said. “We haven’t had as high a margin of victory in our last two games. We’ve faced some adversity, and I think that’s been good for us.

“We’re expecting to come out and play tough and give them all they can handle on Saturday.”

If you go

What: Victory Bell Classic, Hanover at Franklin

When: 1:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Stewart “Red” Faught Stadium

Admission: $5 for adults, $2 for college and high school students, free for middle school students and younger and individuals with a valid Franklin College ID.

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