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Former champ Mount St. Joseph seeks return to HCAC supremacy

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Coming off a bye week, the Franklin College football team is back to the business of preparing for Saturday afternoons.

For the Grizzlies, that means picking up where they left off — dominating league rivals as they continue pursuit of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship.

Prior to the break, the 14th-ranked Grizzlies roared into HCAC play with a 48-7 rout of Manchester and followed up with an 80-14 mauling of Earlham. The victories came in the wake of narrow season-opening losses against NCAA Division III No. 1 Mount Union and Division I Football Championship Subdivision Butler.

Next up is Mount St. Joseph (3-1, 3-0 HCAC), which visits Stewart “Red” Faught Stadium for Saturday’s homecoming. The winner becomes the instant frontrunner for the league title and the automatic NCAA Division III tournament bid that comes with it.

Refreshed and refocused after the bye, the defending champion Grizzlies (2-2, 2-0 HCAC) are confident of staying ahead of the league pack.

“We’re off to a good start. It was disappointing to lose those first two games, but we knew after those games all of our goals are still intact,” said senior quarterback Jonny West, one of the nation’s leading passers at the season’s midpoint. “We want to win conference and get in the playoffs, so this is when we need to peak and play our best football.”

If the past previous two outings are in indication, the Grizzlies are on pace to do just that.

Laser-efficient on both sides of the ball, they have outscored their past two opponents 128-21. Fueled by a balanced rushing and passing attack, the Grizzlies have been virtually unstoppable on offense and have been equally impressive on defense. They all but shut down Manchester and Earlham and were largely effective against defending national champion Mount Union and Subdivision Butler.

“I like our defense, and how we’re not giving up big plays,” Franklin coach Mike Leonard said. “Offensively, I just like our balance right now. I think we’re able to run the ball productively, and then mix that in with a very solid passing attack that we’ve had for a long time, we’re going to be hard to defend.”

Franklin already is.

For example, West completed 23 of 32 passes last week for 287 yards and five touchdowns — all in the first half. He sat out the second and, even with the bye, is still tied for fourth nationally in touchdown passes with 14.

But despite what has been smooth sailing so far, the Grizzlies take nothing for granted. Particularly against Mount St. Joseph.

Before Franklin arrived six years ago as the HCAC’s best program (it has won five of the past six league titles), Mount St. Joseph was the conference’s No. 1 program. Since 2004, the HCAC champion has been either the Grizzlies or Lions.

Franklin has won 28 straight league games, the second-longest streak in the nation. But the Grizzlies know the streak means nothing against a determined opponent that would love nothing more than to end it.

“(The Lions) know how to win it. Their coaching staff knows how to win it. They’re hungry; that’s the other thing,” Leonard said. “When you’re hungry, boy, it just means so much. Our seniors have not lost a conference game. They don’t believe anybody can beat them, and that’s a good thing, yet at the same time it’s a bad thing.

“They’ve got to realize if we don’t come out and play our best, anybody can get us.”

West insists the Grizzlies realize it.

“No matter who we play, we prepare the same. Coach has stressed that since I got here,” he said. “Whether we’re playing Mount Union, Butler, any conference team, anybody that we play we’re going to focus and prepare each week exactly the same.

“We know that we’ve played well in the conference the past three years, but we also know that teams are looking to beat us.”

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