September 11, 2013

For Franklin, playing close isn't enough

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Franklin played a great third quarter and most of a great fourth but it wasn't enough to overcome the champs.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com 

A loss, is a loss, is a loss.

Most of the time in college football, it is that simple. So when Franklin saw No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Mount Union storm back for the game-winning touchdown (30-27) late in the fourth quarter last Saturday in Alliance, Ohio, coach Mike Leonard couldn't hide his disappointment, even though his team accomplished just about everything it wanted except for the victory.

No one expected Franklin to be as competitive against the Purple Raiders, especially after Mount Union took a 20-0 lead into halftime at home. Against the perennial national power, it's enough to make nearly every other Division III team wilt.

Mount Union beat Franklin 45-7 last year at Franklin to open the 2012 season, so for many the halftime score was not particularly a surprise.

For one reason or another, something clicked inside the Grizzlies locker room at halftime. Leonard told his team to believe, but Leonard said it was similar to speeches he's given before after trailing the likes of Mount Union and UW-Whitewater at halftime.

But when Franklin returned to the field, Leonard said "We need a fumble. We need something positive to happen."

Lo and behold, Kyle Holzbog forced a Mount Union fumble on the kickoff to start the second half. Leonard said he started to see his players start to buy into the fact that they believed. Franklin scored three plays later on a Joey Pasquale 3-yard run and it was game on.

"My message to them was just believe," Leonard said. "Then you've got the have the ball bounce the right way and you need guys to make makes. That's what happened. We're really excited about our football team. We know we have a special group of seniors this year. We know we're going to have our chances this year, it's just we're very disappointed that we didn't win that game on Saturday."

Franklin's effort against Mount Union did not go unnoticed around the country. Despite the loss, Franklin jumped from No. 19 to No. 13 in the D3football.com poll this week.

But the Grizzlies will have another difficult battle when it takes on non-scholarship FCS Butler next week, the team that beat then-No. 10 Wittenberg 49-24 last Saturday.

"We're going take the lessons that we learned this week and apply them," Leonard said. "We have to expect to win, regardless who we're playing and we have to prepare to win. If you don't prepare to win, you can't possibly expect to win on Saturday against anybody.

"Butler did a number on us last year and they've got everybody returning. We have to focus on ourselves. Our goal is to play better than we did last week."

Probably one of the biggest stories out of Franklin game was the Grizzlies defense, which held Mount Union to 10 points in the second half after giving up three touchdowns in the first half. The Grizzlies' leading tackler was Matt Walker, whose football career was supposed to have been over after he lost sight in one eye after a freak accident during a game against Butler last year.

Walker's resilience after the injury, known as "Mattitude," became a rallying cry for the Grizzlies last year. In his first game back on the team, he had seven tackles, one for a loss. It was Walker who pounced on the second half kickoff fumble that sparked Franklin's dramatic comeback.

"Isn't that great story? That's just amazing," Leonard said. "You don't want to say it's ho-hum, but that's Matt and the kind of person he is. When you think about everything he's been through, it's just an amazing story."

Against Butler, Franklin will have to find a way to play a better first half of football. The Grizzlies passing combination of Jonny West and Kyle Linville didn't get going until the second half. West finished 16 for 29 for 208 yards and two second-half touchdowns, despite giving up an interception that was returned for a Mount Union score to start the game.

"My hat goes out to Mount Union for that," Leonard said. "(Mount Union coach) Vince Kehres will do an awesome job there. I hope he has a career as successful as his father in many regards. I don't think Kyle had a catch in the first half because they did a great job in defending him."

Leonard said the defense, as well as it played, will have to learn how to close out an opponent in the fourth quarter, even one as talented as Mount Union with quarterback Kevin Burke, who engineered the winning Purple Raider touchdown with 4:17 left.

"Kevin Burke is a special player," Leonard said. "He drastically changed the game and took it over when he had to take it over. That's what we're striving to get to."

In the end, Leonard said he hopes his team feels it can take on anyone in the country and have a legitimate chance to win.

"I didn't know if we could beat Mount Union or Whitewater when we put them on the schedule, but if we don't try, what's the point," Leonard said. "Our goal is to win the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, but I don't want our team to worry about who we'll face in the playoffs. Regardless, we'll know that we have a real chance to win."

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