Grizzlies bear down for HCAC play

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Chase Burton faced two tough defenses in preparation for HCAC play.
Photo courtesy Franklin Athletics 

Chase Burton and the No. 22 Franklin Grizzlies have already experienced dramatic highs and humbling lows in the first two games of the season.

Burton threw for more than 500 yards and led a last-minute comeback against then-No. 11 Thomas More, 43-39, to open the season. Then he was intercepted three times last week in a 59-14 loss to non-scholarship Division I FCS foe Butler on the road.

Despite the early ups and downs, Burton said the games will play a larger role for the Grizzlies getting better as they attempt to win a seventh straight Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title.

"Playing two good teams right out of the gate is going to be really good for us," said the junior quarterback, whose 761 passing yards, 380.5 yards-per-game passing average and seven touchdowns all have him ranked in the top 10 among Division III quarterbacks in those categories.

"It gives us games where we're going to face some adversity to see how we respond to that. Thomas More was a battle and we had to scratch and claw the entire game. Butler is Division I, so they were just a little bigger, faster and stronger than us. If we get to the playoffs, it's going to be good for us. We know we can face adversity and respond to it."

Franklin has never quite taken it easy in scheduling before the HCAC anyway. The Grizzlies have played series with No. 1 Mount Union, No. 2 UW-Whitewater and another in-state non-scholarship Division I FCS team, Valparaiso, in the last six years in an effort to beef up its opponents.

Now comes conference play, where Franklin has not lost since Nov. 9, 2013 when Bluffton upset them 24-17. Franklin coach Mike Leonard said the game is an example of how anything can happen in HCAC play if your team is not focused.

"You are not guaranteed anything and you have no idea what tomorrow holds for you," Leonard said. "Bluffton knocked us off three years ago and you have to give them credit for that. They played a great ballgame. You have to attack each week like you're going to get your opponent's best shot."

Leonard said that he believes he has a team that is filled with self-motivated players who should not need much prodding. The seniors were freshmen when Bluffton pulled off its big upset of the Grizzlies.

"We challenge them with goals," Leonard said. "We've surrounded with guys who need a lot of motivation and want to win all the time."

Burton said that one of the strengths of Franklin is that they have been able to stay focused, allowing them go undefeated in league play for the past two seasons.

"We know that target is on our backs every game in the HCAC so we can't take anyone for granted," Burton said. "We just want to go 1-0 each week. We don't see what anyone else is doing (in the conference). We know that one game can ruin the season for us, so we don't want to look past anyone."

While Burton has received a lot of attention early for piling up big passing numbers, Leonard said he's throwing to one of the most talented receiving corps the Grizzlies have ever produced. Inside receiver Darrell Crenshaw is averaging 10.5 catches per game, tied for seventh best in the country.

Anderson transfer Deontez Alexander has made an immediate impact, averaging 99.0 yards per game and leads the team with 14.1 yards per catch. The brother combination of Lee and Tanner Wroblewski has combined for 23 catches and three touchdowns. It was Tanner who caught the winning score with less than a minute left against Thomas More in Week 1.

"Those guys make my job a whole lot easier, I can tell you that," Burton said. "They have faith in me and I've got a lot of faith in them and we have trust in the system, which has really paid off for us so far."

Franklin still has bugs to work out, particularly on defense. The Grizzlies have given up 49 points a game, even though that has come to a nationally-ranked Division III team and a Division I FCS squad. The Grizzlies have surrendered an average of 269 yards per game on the ground.

"I've been a little disappointed in our ability to stop the run game, but again we've played two teams that are both really good at it," Leonard said. "It's hard to evaluate because we've got so much to improve on.

"It's not just one guy (who has to rally the defense). We have a lot of experienced guys returning on that side of the football. You hope it will start in the middle, with our linebacker Austin Day, being able to rally the guys and get them going."

Defensive linemen Zak Prater (13 tackles) and Devan Ash (11 tackles) lead the defense statistically along with defensive back Zay Thornton (11 tackles).

The Grizzlies will try to keep their HCAC dominance going when they travel to Ohio to play Defiance (1-1) in a 1:30 p.m. matchup on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets are coming off of an 18-13 victory over Hope last week.

"It's good to see that Defiance got a win last week," Leonard said. "It's always fun to play teams coming off of a victory. It gets your competitive juices flowing. I'm old enough to remember when we had no target on our backs, so I know how much they would love to knock you off."

Leonard and Burton agreed that they will start to find out on Saturday if the ups and downs of the first two weeks will pay off for the Grizzlies by season's end.

Big stats for Lake Forest's Joey Valdivia

Valdivia is making the most of his return to the Foresters lineup so far, averaging 185 yards per contest in his first two games, leading Lake Forest to a 2-0 record. Valdivia galloped to 224 yards on 23 carries in a 34-20 victory over Beloit and then followed it up with 146 yards on 24 carries in a 42-21 win over Carleton. The 224-yard total was the fourth-best in Lake Forest history. His total yards (370) are second best in all of Division III and his average is fourth best. The Foresters will begin Midwest Conference play next Saturday at Cornell College.

Other superlatives

Stone Watson has developed into No. 7 Wheaton's top threat on the ground, as his 10.48 yards per carry average is third best in the country. He is averaging 110 yards per game as the Thunder comes off a 60-6 blowout of Kalamazoo.

Concordia-Chicago's Lance Moise rushed for 157 yards on 14 carries in his freshman debut for the Cougars, helping them to a 40-30 victory over Ripon. Concordia's sophomore quarterback Shane Virnala was pretty good, too, completing 24 of 41 passes for 357 yards and five touchdowns. Two of the touchdowns were to Ryan Allison, who had 10 catches for 149 yards.

Defensively, Monmouth linebacker Matt Barnes and Grinnell linebacker Ryan Slager have been all over the field in their first two games, both averaging 17.5 tackles per game, tied for second best in the country.

Game of the week

No. 9 North Central (2-0) at Illinois Wesleyan (1-0), 2 p.m. This game should have made my "Top 10 Games to Watch in 2016." Both teams are predicted to be the favorites in the CCIW along with Wheaton. The Titans squeaked by their opener, 17-13, at Nebraska Wesleyan, but they can be forgiven if they were looking ahead a little to the big tilt against a conference foe. The last time Illinois Wesleyan beat North Central came in Bloomington, 28-22 in 2009, so it will be interesting to see if lightning can strike twice.

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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