Once upon a not-too-distant time, shock and awe might have ruled.
But not anymore.
When the Franklin College football team takes the field today against the No. 2-ranked team in NCAA Division III, the tournament-tested Grizzlies won’t be intimidated.
They’ll be focused on their objective: Getting to the third round of the national playoffs.
Coming off of a 42-10 first-round win at Adrian (Mich.) last week, the No. 16 Grizzlies (9-2) have played against the nation’s best teams multiple times the past three seasons and have no fear of the host Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusaders (11-0).
Lots of respect, to be sure, but no fear.
“Our confidence level is very high now,” said 10th-year coach Mike Leonard, whose team is in the postseason for the fourth time in the past five years. The Grizzlies were eliminated in 2011 and 2010 by three-time defending national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater and hosted Whitewater in last year’s home-opener.
Moreover, the Grizzlies opened this season against 10-time national champion Mount Union, which is ranked No. 1 and has played in the past six national title games. They played the following week at Division I Football Championship Subdivision Butler, which is 8-3 and winding down one of its best seasons in recent years.
Although the Grizzlies went winless against the aforementioned gantlet, the experience has steeled them for the latest showdown against yet another national power.
“They (Crusaders) are a lot like a combination of Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater and Butler rolled into one,” Leonard said. “What’s nice is that we’ve taken on several teams like them. If this was the first time we’ve played this caliber of talent, we would be in awe watching the film exchange with them.
“We have a great deal of respect and still in some ways (are) in awe, but we know we can play with these kind of teams.”
Junior quarterback Jonny West agrees the recent showdowns against the nation’s top teams have prepared the Grizzlies for this moment.
“It takes the shock factor out of playing one of these elite teams,” said West, who has thrown for 2,892 yards and 31 touchdowns. “We’ve had this experience. We’ve played Whitewater the last two years in the playoffs. I do think this is a little different. I think we have a better chance.
“We’re more confident going into this game than in past years.”
Winners of nine straight heading in, the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference champion Grizzlies routed archrival Hanover 58-29 in the regular-season finale and earned a convincing first-round playoff win the following week at Adrian.
Offensively, the Grizzlies have been all but unstoppable since the Week 2 loss against Butler. Defensively, they have virtually shut down the rushing attacks of every opponent during the same span — allowing only 2.2 yards per attempt.
On the season, Franklin averages 463 yards of total offense and gives up only 289. It has outscored opponents a combined 459 to 196.
“I feel that we’ve progressed the entire year,” West said. “After the first two games when we struggled, we started rolling through the conference and played really well the past two weeks. That was a good team we played up in Michigan, and we handled them pretty well.
“I think we’ve been playing really well as of late.”
Leonard thinks the same thing. And he’s cautiously optimistic about the Grizzlies’ chances of shocking the Crusaders, who are regarded frontrunners for the national championship.
“We look for a great game with Mary Hardin-Baylor,” Leonard said. “They’re ranked No. 2 in the country for a great reason. We’re in the top 16, so we’re the underdog, and we know it, and we’re going to relish that role.”