Doing the little things right

More news about: Franklin
Zack Corpe knows first-hand what a special teams breakdown looks like, on both sides of the ball. for

By Clyde Hughes

In a big game against a talented football team, it’s the small things that matter. That’s been No. 16 Franklin’s takeaway while playing the best Division III teams in the nation the past two years.

One missed tackle can turn a 5-yard gain into a 45-yard touchdown romp. Failing to grab an interception can keep a scoring drive alive for your opponents. Simply stepping a yard or two outside of your lane assignment can turn a short punt return into a game-changing 60-yard special team score.

Add that handful of miscues together, and a close game can turn into a blowout quickly. When Franklin travels down to Belton, Tex. to battle No. 2-ranked Mary Hardin Baylor on Saturday, the Grizzlies want to keep the little things from turning against them.

“There are definite points and times in the game where we can definitely play with these teams,” Franklin coach Mike Leonard said. Leonard has coached Franklin since 2003, transforming the Grizzlies from an also-ran program in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference into a consistent champion, winning the HCAC title five of the past six seasons.

In 2008, Franklin advanced to the national quarterfinals. “We’ve come a long way in 10 years. Our confidence level is so much better now,” he said.

To its credit, Franklin has been preparing for a game like this. The Grizzlies scheduled No. 1-ranked defending champion UW-Whitewater to start last year's regular season, losing 45-0. Franklin, though, got a second crack at the Warhawks in the second round of the playoffs, trailing 28-14 at halftime before falling, 41-14.

Franklin opened this season at home against No. 1 Mount Union this season, losing 45-7. The Grizzlies then fell to Butler, 42-13. Butler, a non-scholarship Division I school, went 8-3 and captured a share of the Pioneer Football Conference title this season.

“Against Mount Union, there were about 15 plays out of 120 that if we could have back might have changed the result,” Leonard said. “I know you can’t think of it that simply because Mount Union had a big hand in making those 15 plays. What we’ve been trying to do is to chip away at those 15 plays. It’s a long process of learning how to tackle better, learning how to execute better and improving all the small things. It feels like we’re so close, yet so far away.”

Zack Corpe, Franklin’s junior cornerback and the HCAC’s defensive player of the year, said Mount Union’s two punt returns for touchdowns sticks in his craw the most.

“We just didn’t tackle him and it happened two times,” said Corpe, who had seven interceptions this season. “Mary Hardin Baylor has a quarterback and running back that are studs and are hard to bring down. But if we do make those tackles this time, it’s going to be a close ballgame.”

Since the losses to Mount Union and Butler, Franklin averaged 49.6 points per contest in HCAC games. The Grizzlies defense recorded three shutouts while limiting opponents to 17.8 points per game. Franklin continued its scoring binge with a 42-10 road victory over Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Adrian in the first round of the playoffs last Saturday.

Quarterback Jonny West is completing 66.7 percent of his passes (230 of 346), averaging 262.9 yards per game while throwing 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Franklin is averaging 463.1 yards of total offense.

Kyle Linville caught three touchdown passes from Jonny West on Saturday. for

“Our passing game was clicking pretty darn good on Saturday,” Leonard said. “We didn’t become one-dimensional. Our defense was stopping a pretty good running team. That was the key to the game. When Adrian went back to pass, we had enough pressure even with a four-man rush. Maybe we are better than people think. Maybe we are better than we think.”

Leonard conceded, though, that Mary Hardin-Baylor will give Franklin a whole new level to aspire to. The Crusaders are one of Division III’s standard bearers of excellence. Mary Hardin Baylor has averaged 11 victories a season over the past nine years. It advanced to the Stagg Bowl in 2004, beating Mount Union in the semifinals before losing to Linfield, 28-21.

Crusader quarterback LiDarral Bailey is completing 71.2 percent of his passes (158 of 222) for an average of 199 yards per game and has thrown 23 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. He is also one of the team’s leading rushers, averaging 73.5 yards per game. Running back Darius Wilson is averaging 91.4 yards per contest.

Mary Hardin Baylor, like Franklin in the HCAC, administered regular beatdowns to American Southwest Conference opponents this season, averaging a whopping 57 points per contest in its final five games. That includes a 59-20 win over No. 23 Louisiana College in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.

“This is a great team we’re playing on Saturday,” Leonard said. “Watching them on film, they are spectacular. For us, it’s going to take an all-out effort from the players. A lot of things have to go well for any underdog to win against a team like this, but it all starts with attitude. We need to have a high confidence level, our schemes have to be very sound and solid and we’ve got to finish plays. We’re going to be pursuing a lot because they have great speed. They spread the field horizontally and vertically, so we have to chase all over the field. It’s a simple deal that’s very hard to accomplish.”

Corpe echoed Leonard’s sentiment about confidence. He said they have seen great teams before so Mary Hardin-Baylor’s level of play shouldn’t be a shock to them, but they have to believe they can win the game, first and foremost.

“Our coaches scheduled teams like Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater to make us better and to see how national powers like Mary Hardin-Baylor really play,” Corpe said. “We hadn’t seen Mary Hardin-Baylor play at all, but we have seen Mount Union. We know we’ll have to play tough and never quit against a great team like them.”

As one of 16 D-III teams still playing football, Leonard said his team has a lot to be pleased about this season. He said, though, putting a Mount Union and a UW-Whitewater on the schedule was meant to do something more than give the Grizzlies a warm fuzzy feeling about their season.

“I don’t know how many teams at any level can say that in one season they played the No. 1 team in the nation, No. 2 team nation and a Division I Pioneer League conference champion and another conference champion in Adrian,” Leonard said. “This has been a heck of a season for us. We hope all of that background and training against these tough teams will help us this Saturday.”