FRANKLIN, Ind. – The Franklin College football team survived a scare on Saturday afternoon, fighting off a game Bluffton Beavers squad for a 28-24 win at Faught Stadium.
In a hard-hitting defensive battle, the Grizzlies (8-1, 7-0 HCAC) forced two huge second half turnovers to fight back from a three-point halftime deficit and send the Beavers (2-7, 2-5 HCAC) home with a 28-24 defeat.
Junior quarterback Braden Smith threw for 225 yards and ran for two touchdowns on the afternoon. Austin Grunden also ran for a pair of scores on his way to his first career 100-yard game. But what stood out the most to the Grizzly coaching staff on Saturday was the way the team handled the adversity of a halftime deficit against a conference opponent looking to steal a win on the Grizzlies' home turf.
"We tell our team all the time that we're going to get our opponent's best shot every time," Head coach Mike Leonard said after the game. "I told our guys at the half I was glad the first half went the way it did because things didn't go our way and I wanted to see how we would respond mentally. We forced two big takeaways in the second half and I was really happy with the way we were able to close things out on offense late in the game."
The game started just as so many have this year, with Franklin taking the opening kick and marching down the field on a nine-play, 64-yard drive capped by a three-yard run by Smith to make it 7-0 Franklin less than four minutes into the game.
Both teams would punt on their ensuing drives, but Bluffton would get on the board with less than a minute to go in the first quarter, capping a 13-play drive that lasted more than six minutes with a field goal to make it a 7-3 game after 15 minutes of play.
Franklin stormed back with a response on the very next drive, marching 64 yards in nine plays capped by a nine-yard run from Grunden to put Franklin up 14-3 early in the second quarter. But the rest of the quarter belonged to the Beavers, as Bluffton responded with an 11-play drive that resulted in their first touchdown of the day.
The Grizzlies' final possession of the first half ended prematurely as Bluffton recovered a Franklin fumble near midfield. The Beavers turned the Grizzlies' first giveaway of the day into a 14-play, 39-yard drive that ended with a seven-yard scoring pass from Zach Nobis to Lucas Espitia with two seconds left in the half, giving the Beavers a 17-14 halftime lead.
Bluffton got the ball to start the second half, but their drive was cut short when Bryce Hale burst into the backfield and forced a fumble and fell on the loose ball for Franklin's first takeaway of the day. Later in the quarter, the Grizzlies jumped back in front when Smith punched the ball in from four yards out, making it 21-17 Franklin midway through the third quarter.
Bluffton re-took the lead with 13 seconds left in the third quarter and after forcing the Grizzlies to go three-and-out on their first drive of the fourth, the Beavers were positioned to deal the hosts a critical blow.
But a errant third down snap on the Beavers' first drive of the fourth resulted in another fumble recover by Hale, this one deep in Bluffton territory. Four plays later, the Grizzlies were back in front when Grunden scampered in from six yards out to cap a 29-yard drive and make it 28-24.
Another Bluffton three-and-out gave Franklin the ball with 7:20 to play, and the Grizzlies spent the next 15 plays moving the chains and running out the clock, sealing their seventh straight victory.
Franklin finished the afternoon with a 360-230 advantage in total yards and racked up 29 first downs to 15 for the Beavers. Grunden finished with an even 100 yards on 22 carries, while Brad Bonomini had a team-high nine grabs for 92 yards.
Austin Fleming led the Franklin defense with 10 stops while Zak Prater had a season-high eight stops on the interior of the defensive line. It was a career afternoon for Bryce Hale, as he recorded a career-high seven tackles, three tackles for a loss and one pass break-up to go with his two fumble recoveries.
The Grizzlies close out the regular season next Saturday (Nov. 10), when they host Hanover College in the 88th installment of the Victory Bell Classic. The stakes will be at an all-time high between the two long-time rivals, with the winner earning the HCAC championship and the league's automatic berth in the 2018 Division III playoffs.
Kick-off from Faught Stadium is set for 1:30 p.m.