FRANKLIN, Ind. – The Franklin College football's team season ended on Saturday (Nov. 10) afternoon, with the Grizzlies falling to Hanover in the 88th Victory Bell Classic, 23-20.
The Grizzlies (8-2, 7-1 HCAC) held the ball for nearly 35 minutes and out-gained the Panthers (7-3, 7-1 HCAC) 413-327 on the afternoon. But the Grizzlies were victimized by a stingy Hanover defense that forced five turnovers and held Franklin to their lowest point total of the year.
Franklin took the ball to open the game and rolled down the field in nine plays, jumping out to an early lead with a seven-yard touchdown run by junior Jacob Earl. The Panthers drove it right down the field on their opening possession, but were denied the tying score when Alex Frey picked off an AJ Breit pass in the end zone.
But a Franklin three-and-out followed and after a penalty on the ensuing punt, the Panthers were set up with a short field. Five plays later, the game was tied after Breit found Jackson Daugherty in the end zone with 4:51 left in the opening quarter.
The Grizzlies' next five drives were de-railed by giveaways and turnovers on downs, but Franklin's defense responded in kind by keeping the Panthers off the scoreboard and keeping it a tie game heading into the half.
After forcing a Hanover punt on the first drive of the second half, the Grizzlies jumped back in front when Earl capped a 10-play, 67-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run with 9:42 to go in the third quarter. But the momentum swung right back in Hanover's favor with a 16-play, 78-yard drive capped by a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down, the Panthers' second fourth-down conversion of the year.
The Panthers grabbed their first lead of the day early in the fourth quarter with an Austin Steurer field goal to make it 17-14. Franklin turned to their ground game to re-take the lead, dialing up a 10-play, 71 yard drive that ended with a one-yard run by Braden Smith with 8:41 on the clock.
Each team was forced to punt on the ensuing drives and Franklin had the Panthers at fourth-and-two near midfield with under four minutes to play. But the Panthers converted their fifth fourth-down conversion of the day, scoring on a 48-yard strike from Breit to Taylor Bleistein to make it 23-20 with 3:41 to play.
The Grizzlies wasted no time moving the ball towards midfield, but the drive was de-railed when Hanover's Zach Dauer got a helmet on the ball as Braden Smith was leaning towards the first down. The Panthers fell on the loose pigskin and ran out the clock on their e to earn their first win over Franklin since 2004.
Smith finished the day with 184 yards on 17-of-34 passing and 56 yards on 11 carries. Earl racked up 169 yards on 35 touches, catching two passes for 22 yards on the afternoon. Brad Bonomini hauled in a team-high five passes for 77 yards with Ben Fleet catching four balls for 48 yards.
On defense, senior Zak Prater had a career afternoon in his final game, coming up with a personal-high 11 tackles, including nine solo stops. Senior linebacker Austin Fleming recorded nine stops while Bryce Hale had seven tackles, two going for a loss.
It was the final career home game for 19 senior football players and the final game of the year for a group of Grizzlies that left a lasting impression on their head coach when it was all said and done.
"I'm really proud of this team and I have been all year," Head coach Mike Leonard said after the game. "I was asked earlier about my thoughts about this team and it's one of my favorites because of their attitude and their unselfishness and the way they've conducted themselves."
Franklin finishes the year 8-2, earning a share of the regular season conference championship with Hanover and Mount St. Joseph.