November 21, 2011

You gotta play the best

Franklin freshman defensive back D.J. Hinton got an up close and personal look at UW-Whitewater in September.
Photo by Ralph Greenslade for D3sports.com

By Adam Turer
for D3sports.com

To be the Man, you’ve got to beat the Man.

Any football coach will tell you that to be the best, you have to beat the best. Franklin head coach Mike Leonard has tried to turn that cliché to reality. As the Grizzlies prepare to take on defending national champion UW-Whitewater, they know exactly what to expect when competing against the Warhawks.

Thanks to ambitious scheduling and coincidental bracketing, this will be the third time the Grizzlies meet the Warhawks in a 53-week span. Franklin hosted Whitewater in Week Two this season, falling 45-0. Next season, Franklin begins a home and home series with the other Purple Power, Mount Union. While scheduling Whitewater in the regular season this year likely cost the Grizzlies a perfect regular season, Leonard is confident that it was the right thing to do for the long-term success of the program.

“Some people think that I’m an idiot for it,” he said. “In my younger days, I couldn’t imagine playing that type of team here at Franklin.”

The players have embraced the challenge. The Grizzlies have earned the automatic playoff berth out of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference four out of the past five seasons. Playing against the highest level of competition in Division III creates opportunities for Franklin that other programs go without.

“Not a lot of kids grow up wanting to play Division III football,” said senior wide receiver Nathan Ellis. “If kids know that they’ll be playing against the best D-III has to offer, it gives them a little more incentive to come here.”

Every D-III program wants to be the first to take down the Purple Powers, who have met each other in the Stagg Bowl in six straight years. By scheduling them in the regular season, the Grizzlies increase the odds that they will be that team to shock the nation.

“We knew we’d have to play a team like that eventually, but I didn’t expect us to be able to schedule them for the second week of the season,” said senior defensive back Des Prentice.

Adrian opened the 2010 season at Whitewater. Coach Jim Deere and the Bulldogs were excited for the opportunity to play a non-conference game against the standard-bearer.

“They’re the benchmark,” said Deere. “It lets you know where you’re at in your program and where you need to improve.”

Adrian lost that game 35-0 and did not return the game in 2011.

The Franklin seniors are excited for the underclassmen, who will graduate with the experience of playing Whitewater and Mount Union multiple times. Leonard uses the schedule as a selling point on the recruiting trail.

“It really gets recruits’ eyes open,” said Leonard. “We know we’re not at that level yet, but we hope these games help us to get there in the next three to four years.”

Since starting their dominant run seven years ago, it has become increasingly difficult for the Warhawks to scheduled non-conference Division III opponents. With at-large playoff bids at a premium, few teams want to risk the loss. Adrian was one of the few Division III teams to play at Whitewater in non-conference action in recent years.

“Our players took it as a challenge,” said Deere. “They were excited about it and when we got there they thought ‘That’s what we’re supposed to look like.’ ”

Franklin is confident enough that it can handle its business in the HCAC that a non-conference loss to one of the top two teams in the nation will not keep the Grizzlies out of the postseason. If anything, the marquee games help prepare Franklin for the conference slate.

“It shows you a landmark, a measuring stick for your team,” said Ellis. “It also gets Franklin more known on the national stage.”

The players get an up-close look at how they need to play in order to reach their biggest goals. Every program wants to model itself after the two-time defending champions. These contests serve as a learning experience for the Grizzlies.

“It’s the way they play from snap to whistle,” said Prentice, when asked what stands out the most about the Warhawks.

“Physically, they’re just faster and stronger,” added Ellis. “Also, they are more disciplined than any other team we play. They don’t talk any trash on the field.”

Despite losing 45-0 earlier this year, and 52-21 in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the two games against the Warhawks allow the Grizzlies to play with more confidence. In their first playoff trip under Leonard, in 2007, the Grizzlies lost a tight game to North Central. The next year, Franklin drew an Otterbein team in the first round that had scored 20 points against Mount Union in the regular season. The mindset of the Grizzlies when they saw the 2011 bracket was much different than it was in 2008.

“Having played Whitewater earlier in the season, we weren’t in awe of our first-round opponent when we saw the bracket,” said Leonard. “A few years back, we felt like underdogs going in [to the playoffs].”

There is a balance that the players must carefully manage in these games against the national powers. While they can play loose, knowing that they are the underdogs, they also must play a near-perfect game in order to pull off the upset.

“We know that all the pressure is on them,” said Prentice. “We have nothing to lose, but now that we’ve seen them a couple of times we know what kind of level we need to play at in order to compete.”

The biggest boon for Leonard was getting Whitewater and Mount Union to agree to come play at Faught Stadium in Franklin, Ind. The Purple Raiders are a household name in the area because of Pierre Garçon’s success with the Indianapolis Colts. The Warhawks are starting to become a household name in the area with the teams matching up for a third time in Franklin’s last 12 games. Seeing these programs firsthand lets the Franklin College community know what it takes to reach the level of national prominence to which Leonard strives to lead the Grizzlies.

“We wanted to play them at our place so that the whole campus, community and town could see what a championship team looks like and see the quality of athletes that they have,” said Leonard.

Whether at home or on the road, the Franklin community — and, importantly, recruits — will notice when the Grizzlies take the field against the best of the best in Division III.

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