As regular-season-finales go, it’s hard to imagine finishing on a higher emotional note than the Franklin College football team did this past week.
In the annual Victory Bell Classic against archrival Hanover, the host Grizzles retained possession of the bell, won sole possession of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship and earned a third-straight trip to the NCAA Division III playoffs with a decisive 58-29 win.
Season-finales don’t get better than that. Except for maybe Adrian College, which enters the postseason on an emotional high, as well.
Having already secured a playoff bid, unranked Adrian (Mich.) traveled this past week to No. 17 Division III Huntingdon College in Alabama with nothing to lose, except a meaningless out-of-conference road game.
IF YOU GO: TOURNAMENT TIME
What: First round NCAA Division III football playoffs, Franklin College (8-2) at Adrian College (9-1)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Performance Stadium in Adrian, Mich.
Admission: $8 for adults, $5 for students with ID, and $5 for senior citizens and children ages 3-12
Blue & Gold Day: Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness has declared Friday Blue & Gold Day. Franklin citizens are encouraged to wear blue and gold as a show of support for the football team.
But the Bulldogs (9-1) didn’t play like it. Trailing 16-0 against the national power heading into the fourth quarter, Adrian rallied for a rousing 17-16 win.
In light of how both teams concluded the regular season, 10th-year Franklin coach Mike Leonard isn’t sure who truly brings momentum into Saturday’s first-round playoff game at Adrian.
Maybe call it a toss-up.
“I think we’re finishing on a high note, being that we were in a playoff (-like) game last week, and it was win or go home, so we’re on to the next stage of the playoffs,” said Leonard, whose team travels to Adrian for Saturday’s first-round game. “Adrian, they’re high from a great comeback victory against a good Huntingdon team who was ranked 17th in the country, so it’s interesting how momentum will play out.
“I don’t know if it will mean anything come Saturday at noon when it kicks off, but we’re feeling pretty good.”
It’s easy to understand why.
Winners of eight straight heading in, the Grizzlies (8-2, 8-0 HCAC) are in the postseason for the fifth time in the past six years. They’re only losses have come against Division III No. 1 Mount Union in the season-opener and Division I Football Championship Subdivision Butler in the Week 2.
Franklin hasn’t lost since. Moreover, it has seldom been challenged.
All eight of the Grizzlies’ victories have been by double-digit margins. They scored 35 or more points in all but one of those wins and feature two of the nation’s top offensive players, junior quarterback Jonny West (2,589 passing yards, 27 touchdowns) and junior wide receiver Kyle Linville (65 catches, 1,096 yards, 17 touchdowns).
Defensively, the Grizzlies are equally impressive, especially against the run. Through 10 games, they’ve given up a combined rushing 814 yards and yield only 81 per game. They’ve surrendered only 13 rushing touchdowns and give up on average per game only 296 yards of total offense.
By comparison, Franklin averages 458 yards of total offense per game.
“We’re giving up very little rushing yards. That’s a huge plus,” Leonard said. “We’re going to be facing some teams that can run the ball well, as Adrian can. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Making only its third Division III playoff appearance and its first since 1988, Adrian advanced to the postseason by winning the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship. The Bulldogs lost their season-opener 20-17 against Carthage and bring a nine-game win streak into the first round.
Although the Grizzlies aren’t looking past Adrian, Leonard is confident their playoff experience will pay dividends against a relative postseason newcomer.
“It’s not the frenzy and the over-excitement that it is those first couple of times. Now it’s, ‘OK, we’ve been here, done this. We expect to be here,’” Leonard said. “We expect to make a run here now. Just be happy with making it. Let’s go make a run.
“This is going to be a very competitive game. Either team could pull this off, in my mind. We’ll see how it shakes out.”