'Our best is good enough': Ferris football seeks first trip to DII final

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Tony Annese

The bracket seedings say otherwise, but both sets of the most-recent national rankings suggest Saturday's matchup between Ferris State and Minnesota State-Mankato features the top two Division II football teams in the country.

But it's only a semifinal matchup between two undefeated teams, Ferris State 14-0 and Mankato 13-0.

They play in Minnesota, at 3 p.m., the winner heading to next week's championship.

The Bulldogs have never been to the championship game; this is their third semifinal. How does that play in to the whole pressure scale?

"I don't know about the players, but for me, I coached Whitehall girls basketball and I felt as much pressure as I do (now)," Ferris coach Tony Annese said this week, laughing. "Every competition, if you're a competitor, it doesn't matter if it's the national semifinal game or I'm playing pickle ball against my brother or something, you want to win.

"I tell our guys, focus on us. If we're the best version of us, I feel good about who we are and our capacity to win games.

"Our best is good enough to win another game."

Ferris will head on the road for the second consecutive week, having steamrolled Ouachita Baptist, 37-14 in Arkansas last week.

In the warm weather down south, Ferris started strong, taking a 27-0 lead at halftime, and easily coasted into the semifinals.

That was the latest dominating performance on the road by Ferris, which is 37-6 in road games under Annese, the head coach since 2012, including 11 consecutive road wins heading into this weekend.

"I don't know why. People ask me that all the time," Annese said. "But these guys are a gritty bunch and they're ready, regardless where they're playing."

Even if it's a frigid 17 degrees (before the wind chill), as it's forecast to be Saturday in Mankota, about an hour-and-a-half southwest of Minneapolis.

"Just another day in Big Rapids, to be honest," said junior receiver Jevon Shaw, a former Farmington Hills Harrison standout.

Like Ferris, Mankato — led by Nate Gunn (1,556 rushing yards), Ryan Schlichte (1,800 passing yards, 18 TDs, seven INTs) and Shane Zylstra (1,083 receiving yards) — has never won a national title; it lost in the finals in 2014.

Meanwhile, this is Ferris' first trip to the national semifinals since 2016, when it lost to Northwest Missouri State.

"We've gotta finish," Shaw said. "that was the biggest thing in 2016. We didn't finish."

This postseason, they've tended to start the games strong on offense, and finish the games strong on defense. Ferris gets a lot of praise for the offense, and rightly so, with its star quarterback, redshirt junior Jayru Campbell (Detroit Cass Tech), who this week was named a first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association. Senior offensive tackle Devon Johnson earned second-team honors.

Campbell missed the game two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, but returned for last week's victory. Even so, Ferris could employ as many as three other quarterbacks Saturday: junior Travis Russell, senior Bret Mooney and redshirt freshman Evan Cummins, the trio that led the team to victory in Campbell's absence two weeks ago.

The Bulldogs ran for 357 yards last week; Mankato has an elite run defense.

But the defense, with just two senior starters in linebacker DeShaun Thrower (Muskegon) and defensive tackle Jamil Pollard, has been mighty impressive, too. In the three playoff games, the Bulldogs have allowed an average of 18 points. Only once all season have they allowed 30 points, and that was to rival and perennial powerhouse Grand Valley State, the last state team to win a Division II title (2005-06) in October.

That's not lost on Annese, as his team prepares to play a Mankato team that was 17th in the nation in total offense, averaging 460.4 yards a game.

"I felt kind of sneakingly optimistic about our ability to play good defense, but I think they've even exceeded our expectations. They've been great against the run," Annese said. "One thing I think that helps ... this will be our fourth season in three years, meaning we've played 11 extra games. That's 44 extra practices, three additional spring balls. That helps us. Our depth has really growth.

"Part of it is just growing through time, and our defense has really done that."

Division II football


►Notre Dame of Ohio (13-0) at Valdosta State (12-0), noon Saturday

►Ferris State (14-0) at Minnesota State-Mankato (13-0), 3 Saturday


►Dec. 15, McKinney ISD Stadium and Community Event Center, McKinney, Texas


Twitter: @tonypaul1984