The Franklin College football team’s season ended Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs at in-state rival Wabash.
Franklin (8-3), making its seventh postseason appearance the past eight seasons, was defeated 33-14 by the No. 14 Little Giants.
Leading up to the game, 12th-year Franklin coach Mike Leonard had described the Wabash defense as one of the best in the country, and he was right.
The Little Giants’ pressure defense had been successfully shut down quarterbacks all season. They did it again Saturday with six quarterback sacks of senior quarterback Grant Welp, the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s Offensive Most Valuable Player.
Welp is among Div. III’s national passing leaders.
“If it wasn’t for the pressure, he (Welp) would’ve thrown for 800 yards it felt like,” Wabash coach Eric Rayburn said. “He was just never missing on any of his throws when he could set his feet.
“I thought our pressure up front was critical.”
By withstanding Franklin’s aerial assault, which averaged over 40 points per game in the regular season and 480 yards, Welp was held to 28 of 53 passing with one touchdown and an interception.
“He’s a warrior,” Leonard said. “He epitomized the fight that we have, kind of like a prize fighter who keeps getting up. When the game got away from us point-wise, we had to throw the ball quite a bit, which is tough under their pressure.
“It’s easy to say you have to throw quick and spring away from pressure, but those things are easier said than done.”
Taking the opening kickoff, the Grizzlies jumped to a 7-0 lead, when senior running back Joey Pasquale capped an eight-play, 83-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. The score marked the ninth time this season the Grizzlies had scored on their first possession of a game.
On the Grizzlies’ third possession in the first quarter, which began at the Franklin nine-yard line, Wabash tackled Welp in the end zone for a safety, triggering a slight momentum shift.
Moments later, Wabash then took a 9-7 lead on a 28-yard run by Mason Zurek to end the first quarter.
Neither team could gain traction in a scoreless second period.
The Little Giants (10-1) rallied in the third quarter with a touchdown and a 24-yard field goal by Andrew Tutsie, while Franklin got a 33-yard touchdown from Welp to junior Mason Deal to narrow the Wabash margin to 19-14.
A 14-point burst in the final quarter, however, coupled with Wabash’s defensive pressure, launched the Little Giants to the win and second-round game Saturday at No. 1 defending national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater.
After the game, Leonard pulled his team together for one last huddle and to recognize Franklin’s 21 seniors.
“This has been a bunch of awesome guys to hang out with,” Leonard said. “These seniors have been through it all, staying together through the thick and thin.
“They’ve made a name for themselves.”
In his one and only season as a starter, Welp finished the season with 31 touchdown passes and 3,127 passing yards to lead the Grizzlies to an unprecedented five straight conference titles.
“We go into every new season with new players, new challenges and new goals,” Leonard said. “Fortunately, we’ve had some really outstanding impact players who love what they do. This is a family. We play hard and stay loose and have fun.
“That’s been our mantra all these years. It’s the way legendary (former Franklin) coach Red Faught did it, and that’s the way we’ve done it.”