WAVERLY, Iowa – After a one-year absence, the Franklin College football team was back in the playoffs on Saturday afternoon, taking on unbeaten and No. 15-ranked Wartburg College on a cold and windy day at Walston-Hoover Stadium.
Saturday's showdown proved to be an epic one as both teams traded touchdowns and defensive stands all afternoon. Regulation wasn't enough time to decide things, and the teams headed to overtime with a spot in the second round up for grabs. In the end, the Grizzlies came up on the wrong end of an instant classic, falling 35-34.
"Today was a fantastic football game," Head coach Mike Leonard said after the game. "It was a great battle with Wartburg and hats off to them for their performance today. We knew today could come down to one or two plays late and that came true. We were in a position to win and we were confident because of our belief our players. It didn't come to fruition but I'm very pleased with how we performed today."
Franklin got the ball first and wasted no time putting points on the board, moving the ball down the field in 11 plays that ended with a Jordan Brown one-yard TD run. The Knights would turn to the ground game to even things up, getting on the board with a 12-play 80-yard drive that ended in a touchdown when Wartburg's Riley Brockway recovered a fumble in the end zone.
Franklin was moving on their second drive of the day, but that drive was prematurely ended when Brad Bonomini was stripped in Franklin territory, resulting in the first turnover of the day. Wartburg would use the short field to their advantage, taking the lead on a seven-yard TD run from Connor Schrader to put the Grizzlies behind for the first time since Sept. 9.
The Grizzlies rebounded in impressive fashion, marching down the field in 15 plays on their next drive, capped off with Brown's second one-yard score of the day to tie things up at 14. Wartburg looked to re-claim the lead with a fierce ground attack, but just as the Knights were heading in for the go-ahead score late in the half, Trace Rooks came up with a huge strip of Dylan Binion at the goal line that the Grizzlies fell on in the end zone to keep the game tied.
Franklin would turn the Knights' only mistake of the day into points, marching down the field in 12 plays that was capped by a 14-yard pass from Chase Burton to Ben Fleet on fourth-and-six with 1:25 left in the half. Once again, the Knights would answer, marching down the field for a touchdown with 10 seconds left in the half, sending the teams into the break tied 21-21.
The Knights took the ball to open the second half and marched down the field in eight plays to re-take the lead with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Matt Sacia to Binion. The back-and-forth battle between the two offenses continued as Franklin answered with a quick scoring drive of their own, capped by Brown's third TD of the day on an 11-yard run with 9:30 to play in the third.
From there, the defenses took center stage as both units came up with several key stops down the stretch. Franklin forced a pair of three-and-outs on the Knights' next two possessions, but the FC offense was stifled on each ensuing drive as Wartburg held the Grizzlies on fourth down inside their own 10-yard line to keep the game tied.
The fourth quarter featured more strong play from both defensive units, with Franklin's biggest stop coming with 3 minutes to go when the Grizzlies came up with their first fourth down hold of the day inside the Wartburg red zone. It proved to be the final real threat either offense posed in regulation as the teams headed to overtime tied at 28.
Wartburg got the ball to start overtime and after a conversion on fourth-and-nine early, the Knights re-claimed the lead with a six-yard TD run from Schrader. The Knights were a play away from ending things, but Burton found Tanner Wroblewski on fourth-and-eight from the 23 to keep the drive going. Two plays later, the Grizzlies were in the end zone as Burton scampered in from 10 yards out, pulling the Grizzlies within a point.
Franklin would elect to go for two and the win, but Burton's conversion pass to Tanner Wroblewski fell incomplete, ending the game.
Burton went 25-for-44 for 280 yards and one touchdown in his final career game. The Corydon, Ind.-native and three-time league Offensive Player of the Year finishes his career as Franklin's all-time leader in passing yards (11,579) and passing touchdown (121).
Brown capped his career by racking up 116 yards on 32 carries while catching five passes for 51 yards. His three rushing touchdowns are a new single-game best. Brad Bonomini led the Grizzlies with eight grabs while Tanner Wroblewski's 70 yards receiving was also a team-high.
On defense, Austin Fleming was all over the field on Saturday, recording a career-high 16 tackles, three of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. Trace Rooks added nine stops and Jay McClain finished with eight tackles on the afternoon.
It was the final game in the highly-successful careers of 31 Franklin seniors, who were responsible for 32 wins, three conference championships, three playoff berths and several all-conference awards over the last four years.