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RECAP | Leonard Moves Past Faught, Grizzlies Tame Lions in Battle of HCAC Unbeatens

Photo courtesy of Chris Shaff
Coach Leonard gets the game ball following the win. Photo courtesy of Chris Shaff

CINCINNATI, Ohio – Supremacy in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) was at stake on Saturday afternoon, when the Franklin College football team headed east to take on the Mount St. Joseph Lions in a meeting between two of the final three unbeaten teams in conference play.

With the offense struggling to get going early on the Franklin (5-1, 4-0 HCAC) defense picked up the slack and held the high-powered Lions (5-2, 4-1 HCAC) offense without an offensive touchdown in the opening half. The Grizzly offense came out swinging in the second half, finding the end zone on their first four drives of the second half to pull away with a 42-34 win.

With his 121st career victory on Saturday, Franklin head coach Mike Leonard moved past legendary head coach Stewart "Red" Faught for the most career wins by anyone patrolling the Franklin sidelines. Following the win, the man in his 16th season on the Franklin sideline was humbled by the outpouring of support from fans and former players alike. 

"It blows you away when you're on the way home and you're getting so much response from so many people that have been with you along the way," Leonard said after the game. "I'm just thankful for everyone that has surrounded our program over the years, especially the players that have done the trench work for the love of the game. This is a player's game and I've just been lucky enough to hang around and have fun with everyone along the way."

In a meeting of two of the top offenses in the country, early on it was the defenses that took center stage with the first big play of the game coming on a Lions' pick-six less than five minutes into the contest. Franklin went without a score in the opening quarter but got back to even 42 seconds into the second when Jacob Earl trounced in from 12 yards out.

The Lions' offense began to move the ball on the ensuing drive, but a 15-play drive netted only a field goal as the Grizzlies' defense held the Lions inside the 10-yard line. The Grizzly offense fed off the stop and rattled off an 11-play drive of their own that culminated in a one-yard sneak from Braden Smith that made it 14-10 late in the opening half.

The Mount looked to answer before the first half wrapped up, but their drive ended on Austin Fleming's first career interception with 32 seconds left in the half, preserving the Franklin lead as the teams headed into the break.

 "There was a lot of positivity at the half because we knew we could crank it up on offense in the second half," Leonard added. "We knew we were going to pull it off, but we knew it wouldn't be easy. Our defense prepared all week and executed all afternoon and they allowed us to keep the lead in an important spot."

The Lions re-claimed the lead on the opening drive of the second half but it didn't last long as Franklin countered with an eight play drive, aided by a Mount personal foul penalty on third-and-29 that kept the drive alive, with Smith hitting Ben Fleet from 12 yards out for a 21-17 lead.

The game's turning point happened over a two-play stretch that began on the very next drive. With the Lions facing third down near midfield, junior Bryce Hale sacked quarterback Chaiten Tomlin and forced a fumble that was scooped up by Tyler Reed. One play later, Smith connected with Brad Bonomini on a 46-yard scoring pass, making it a 28-17 game.

"The spark we got midway in the third quarter was exactly what we needed," Leonard noted. "Braden made a great throw and Brad made a great grab in a spot where our defense got things started."

Another Lion field goal late in the third brought them within a score, but a long kick return from Ryan Poole set up a short field and a five-play, 56-yard drive that ended on a five-yard strike from Smith to Fleet. Smith put the finishing touches on the win with an 18-yard touchdown run with 5:40 left in the game, and the Grizzly ground game was able to bleed the clock and close out the win from there.

Earl was a force on the ground for the Grizzlies, carrying the ball a career-high 30 times for 186 yards and a score, eclipsing his previous career-high in rushing yards. Smith was an efficient 19-for-27 for 257 yards and three scores, connecting with Bonomini seven times for a game-high 113 yards.

Defensively, Fleming racked up a season-high 14 tackles to go with his first career pick. Wyatt Carmack set a career-high with seven stops while Bryce Hale's 1.5 sacks were tops among all players. The Grizzlies held the Lions to 360 yards of offense, 140 yards below their season average.

Franklin returns to action next Saturday (Oct. 20), when they welcome Earlham College to town for Samaritan's Feet Day at Faught Stadium. Kick-off is set for 1:30 p.m.