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Grizzlies can clinch berth in tourney by beating rivals

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For the first time in recent memory, the Franklin College football team isn’t roaring into the regular-season finale.

It’s stumbling in.

Stunned last week at Bluffton, the Grizzlies enter today’s Victory Bell Classic at archrival Hanover determined to avoid a similar fate.

After all, more rides on the outcome than a trophy and bragging rights.

Win, and the Grizzlies return to the NCAA Division III postseason for a fourth straight year. Lose, and they face the sobering possibility of missing out.

That’s the motivation for the Grizzlies, who with a win are

assured at least a share of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and, by virtue of tiebreaker advantages, an automatic national tournament bid.

And make no mistake, they take nothing for granted. Not coming off a loss against 3-6 Bluffton that snapped a 31-game winning streak in HCAC games and caused them to fall from No. 9 in the national rankings to No. 23.

“It is no fun losing a game that, on paper, you’re probably expected to win and everybody expects you to win,” 11th-year coach Mike Leonard said, referring to the 24-17 defeat. “We learned we can’t just walk on the field without preparation and expect to win.

“We have to prepare very well if we are going to expect to win.”

Victimized by four turnovers last week, the Grizzlies (6-3, 6-1 HCAC) were uncharacteristically mistake-prone offensively and, on defense, yielded the game-winning touchdown — a 44-yard touchdown pass — with 35 seconds to play.

Franklin entered averaging 51.3 points per game and exited with its lowest point production of the season. In addition, senior quarterback Jonny West — who leads Division III with 35 touchdown passes — didn’t throw a scoring toss for the first time all season.

Yet the Grizzlies aren’t wallowing in the past. They’ve spent the week moving forward, poring over film, identifying weak points.

“Our guys are excited about just getting back on the field and playing well, again,” Leonard said. “We played well in so many spots last weekend, but a big handful of plays kind of sealed our fate. We give Bluffton credit, but more than anything we just want to get back on the field and redeem ourselves.

“It’s an added bonus that it’s a rivalry weekend.”

Besides the HCAC title, at stake is the Victory Bell, presented annually to the winner since 1938. The Grizzlies have maintained it for eight straight years.

Although Franklin has dominated the series in recent years, Hanover still has the overall edge. The Panthers (5-4, 5-2 HCAC) lead the all-time series, which began in 1898 and was on hiatus between 1972 and 1988, 42-37-3.

Moreover, Hanover — which is on a five-game winning streak, including a 41-0 blowout of Bluffton — leads the Victory Bell series 35-21.

The Victory Bell Classic is being featured among the nation’s top small-college rivalries today during a segment on ESPN’s College GameDay, sometime between 10 and 11 a.m. The segment will include iconic images from past games between the longtime rivals.

“It is truly a throw-out-the-records, throw-out-the-history type of game,” Leonard said. “This game will be unlike any other. I think (Hanover’s) confidence level is pretty high right now. They’re on a five-game win streak and soundly defeated a team we just got beaten by, so I know they’re confident.

“And our guys are confident, too. So it’s going to be a great game.”

And quite possibly it’s going to be a must-win for the Grizzlies, in terms of advancing to the playoffs.

Rose-Hulman (6-3) is 6-1 in HCAC play and concludes the regular season today against Earlham (2-7). Franklin, which defeated Rose-Hulman Oct. 26, would receive the postseason bid if both teams finish with 6-1 league records.

“There’s still football left to be played. We don’t know how much, but we can only do what we know is left, and that’s this game,” Leondard said. “We’re not looking any further into the future than 1:30 (today).”

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