Ferris State football's Tony Annese wins No. 100; No. 101 could come with national title

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Tony Annese earned his 100th victory as head football coach at Ferris State on Saturday.

In this case, though, No. 101 could be a lot sweeter.

Behind five rushing touchdowns from graduate-transfer quarterback Jared Bernhardt, the Bulldogs stormed past Shepherd University of West Virginia, 55-7, in the Division II national semifinal in Big Rapids. With the victory, Ferris State will play for a national championship for the second time in program history.

The Ferris State football team celebrates its win in the Division II national semifinal Saturday.

"It's just really special," Annese said following Saturday's victory, which improved the Bulldogs to 13-0. "It's just a great group of young men who have really committed themselves to something.

"If you can commit yourself to something, you can achieve just about anything you want."

Ferris State, ranked No. 1 in the country, will play Valdosta State (12-1) of Georgia in the championship game next Saturday in McKinney, Texas. Kickoff is set for 9 p.m. Eastern, and the game will air on ESPNU.

This is a rematch of the 2018 championship game, won by Valdosta State, 49-47 — the Bulldogs denied in their quest to join the men's basketball team as national champs in the same year. Then, in 2019, Ferris State lost to eventual national champion West Florida, 28-14, in the national semifinals.

The 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19.

The Bulldogs, a powerhouse for most of Annese's nine-year run, are looking for their first national championship, and the state's first in Division II since Grand Valley State won its fourth in six years in 2006.

"I told Coach I wanted to come to a team that was gonna compete, I wanted to win a national championship," said Bernhardt, who's actually won one — as a lacrosse star at Maryland. "I just wanted to help them out."

He's done that all year, working around nagging injuries. He returned for Saturday's game and rushed for 201 yards and the five touchdowns, all the scores coming in the first half. He also was 7-for-11 passing for a Ferris State that uses a three-man rotation at QB — along with junior Evan Cummins (Livonia Churchill) and sophmore Mylik Mitchell, who also each had a touchdown Saturday — and actually has had nine players throw passes in 2021.

Freshman receiver Tyrese Hunt-Thompson (Cassopolis) had a pair of touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving, as Ferris State racked up 560 yards of offense to Shepherd's 299. Ferris State sophomore CJ Jefferson (Muskegon) had a 62-run on the Bulldogs' first play of the game, and they were off.

Meanwhile, Shepherd (13-2) came in with impressive offensive statistics, led by likely Harlon Hill Trophy (the DII equivalent of the Heisman) winner Tyson Bagent. But he was limited to 22-for-46 passing for 249 yards, throwing one interception to go with the lone Shepherd score. Ferris State sacked him three times, twice by sophomore end Caleb Murphy (Dowagiac), a transfer from Grand Valley State who has 13.5 sacks on the season. One of the sacks came in the first quarter with Shepherd at the Ferris State 7; that was third down and sent Shepherd to fourth-and-17; it went for it and fumbled.

That was a pivotal point in the game; a score would've made it 21-14 Ferris State; instead, it was 21-7, and the Bulldogs quickly scored on the next drive to make it 28-7 en route to the rout.

"We just wanted to show the nation how dominant we can be on defense," junior defensive back Sidney McCloud said following the semifinal victory.

"We pride ourselves on never giving up," he added, speaking of the pivotal, momentum-shifting stop early in the game against Shepherd. "That's just how we're built."

Ferris State has beaten its opponents by an average of 28 points this season, and that includes a 47-45 overtime win over Saginaw Valley State in Week 3 and a 35-28 win over rival Grand Valley State in Week 6. Grand Valley State was no match in the playoffs, however, with Ferris State winning 54-20 to open its run — a run that has seen Ferris State win the takeaway battle, 11-1, over the three postseason games.

The run continues in Texas, where the weather figures to be a lot better — and warmer — than Saturday's blustery conditions in Big Rapids.

That's welcome news for a team built on warm-weather recruits, including more than 20 from Florida, Bernhardt and McCloud among them.

"I'm the softest human being in the world when it comes to cold," said Annese, talking about a practice last week when the cell-phone app said it "feels like 7." "We've just been so gritty.

"I told them after practice, I said, 'You guys are different, you're a different team.'"

Maybe, just maybe, a national-championship team.

That'd sure make No. 101 awfully special.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984