Division II football: GVSU, Ferris aren't thinking rematch just yet

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Bart Williams

Sure, it's mighty easy for us to take one look at the Division II football bracket and consider the delicious possibilities — like, say, a Grand Valley State-Ferris State rematch in the second round.

But bring that scenario up to Grand Valley coach Matt Mitchell or Ferris State coach Tony Annese, you best be prepared to duck.

"We don't get to play that rematch if we lose Saturday," Mitchell said. "The finality of the contest on Saturday, if that doesn't have your attention, I don't know what will. We lose, and we turn all of our gear in."

Said Annese: "There's nobody beyond this week."

That, of course, is what you'd expect the coaches to say, but it's legit, given the strength of the quadrant of the bracket they find themselves in. Seven of the top 21 teams in the country, per the American Football Coaches Association rankings, are in that portion of the bracket, with Ferris State (11-0) second and Grand Valley State (10-1) seventh.

That includes both foes for Grand Valley State and Ferris State, who have some recent and some not-so-recent history with their opponents.


Grand Valley State hosts Northwest Missouri State (9-2), the six-time Division II national champion whom Mitchell has faced five times during his tenure with the Lakers — either as an assistant or a head coach. Mitchell is 2-3 in those games, the wins coming in the 2005 and '06 national-championship games, by a total of seven points.

Northwest Missouri State most recently won it all in 2015 and '16.

"The kids are excited," Mitchell said ahead of Saturday's 1 p.m. kickoff.  "Nobody on the roster has played Northwest Missouri State, but we have plenty of history with that program."

Ferris State, meanwhile, has a much-fresher recollection of its first-round foe, Harding (9-2), which visits Big Rapids for a 1 p.m. Saturday playoff opener

Harding, out of Arkansas, ended Ferris State's season in the quarterfinals a year ago, on a last-second field goal for the 16-14 victory.

If Grand Valley State and Ferris State both win, they will meet in the second round — which would be a rematch of the rivals, who played a thriller during the regular season, with the Bulldogs using some late trickery to pull out the 35-31 win in October. But you can see why that all that talk isn't really being talked about at all.

"The team that kicked a field goal on the last play of the game to beat us is the team we're playing in Round 1," Annese said. "There's not a chance that anybody on our team has thought about anybody else other than Harding.

"They humbled us last year, they stole our dreams, any descriptive way you want to say it. It's lingered with us. It hurts."

Ferris State is on some kind of run, one that dates back years. It has only lost three regular-season games since October 2013, and two of those came in 2016, when the Bulldogs made the national semifinals. They're still searching for that first national championship, though, and this just might be the team to get it done, with a potent offense led by quarterback and former Detroit Cass Tech star Jayru Campbell. The Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player of the year is on some kind of redemption tour, one that might end up with him winning the Harlon Hill Trophy. Campbell gets help from senior Devon Johnson, the offensive lineman of the year.

Grand Valley State has the more-storied tradition, of course, with four national championships, though none yet since Mitchell became head coach in 2010. He's twice taken them to the national semifinals, though this season has been a grind. After the loss to Ferris State, the Lakers won their next three games by 11 points, total. One slipup in any of those games, and playoff hopes could've been destroyed.

Starting quarterback Bart Williams came out of the win over Davenport and missed the next game, against Saginaw Valley State, with a plethora of health issues, including to his shoulder and hip. His backup, sophomore Cole Kotopka, also has been banged up.

"I don't think if this is one of our, top to bottom, most-talented teams, but this is a good team," said Mitchell, whose squad entered the year having to replace two running backs who were ruled ineligible, a tight end (Nick Keizer) who was with the Baltimore Ravens in training camp, and a whole bunch of stars on defense.

"One thing we do know about this squad, we are battle-tested."

Also among the 28 teams in the Division II playoffs is Hillsdale (9-2), which qualified for the third time in program history, and the first time in eight years. Hillsdale, a former member of the GLIAC and this year's champion of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, opens at Kutztown  (9-1) in Pennsylvania, also at 1 Saturday.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984