DII football champ Ferris State: This is for those who came back, those who came before us

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In the lead-up to Saturday's Division II national championship game, the Ferris State football team sat down for a team meeting that lasted about an hour.

It was a chance to reflect on not just the season the Bulldogs had put together, but the seasons before that, including two close calls in the postseason, and a 2020 campaign that was canceled by COVID.

"We sat down and we did a little hour talk about what their 'why' was," Ferris State head coach Tony Annese said. "I bet 10 guys, when they talked about their 'why,' said that they were contemplating not coming back after COVID. Now, obviously, they feel blessed that they did come back."

Ferris State quarterback Jared Bernhardt scores in the Division II national championship game Saturday against Valdosta State.

Ferris State won its first Division II football national championship, rolling Valdosta State of Georgia, 58-17, on Saturday night in McKinney, Texas.

The Bulldogs finished the season 14-0, and set a Division II playoff record for most points scored, with 208 in four games.

It was a dominant effort against a Valdosta State team that beat Ferris State, 49-47, in the 2018 final. Eighteen Bulldogs from 2018 stuck around for the 2021 season, and were rewarded.

"We've been in the position to win throughout my years here, and, you know, finally getting it done for our staff and for our players," said senior offensive lineman Dylan Pasquali, of Trenton. "These seniors have been working their tail off throughout their career.

"We finally pulled it out. It's surreal."

Things have been trending this direction for several years for Ferris State, which in 2012 hired Annese away from Grand Rapids Community College, where he won two national championships. Annese went 7-4 his first season and 8-3 his second. He hasn't had fewer than 10 wins or missed the playoffs (2020's cancellation notwithstanding) since 2013.

Ferris State made the second round of the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, the semifinals in 2016, the quarterfinals in 2017, before making it to McKinney in 2018.

Ferris State lost to eventual national champion West Florida in the 2019 semifinals.

It's been such a long road to the mountain top, that's why Annese and the players talked late Saturday night about how this championship isn't just for the current coaches and players, but also for those who came before them. After the game, fans stormed the field, a number of them being former players. One of the first players Annese spotted on was Jason Vander Laan, his quarterback the first four seasons at Ferris State.

"He was kind of the guy that changed our course early when we took over in 2012," said Annese, the championship trophy sitting right in front of him. "Him and others.

"This is kind of for any guy that threw that jersey on."

Those guys include four current NFL players: Justin Zimmer (Buffalo Bills), Malik Taylor (Green Bay Packers), Tavierre Thomas (Houston Texans) and Zach Sieler (Miami Dolphins). Ferris State accounts for four of the 53 Division II or III players on NFL rosters as of early September, the Bulldogs becoming the poster children for if you can play, you'll be foun, no matter where you are.

From a talent perspective, you could see the momentum building toward this — just like you could see it in Grand Valley State in the early 2000s, when the Lakers lost in the championship game in 2001 before reeling off four titles in a five-year span.

That stretch was huge for recruiting, and Grand Valley State remains a national powerhouse. Ferris State will reap those rewards, although it already has. No way does it land Maryland lacrosse star-turned-quarterback Jared Bernhardt if it didn't already have the reputation. When he was ready to pursue football again, he went Googling possible destinations, and Ferris State caught his attention. Bernhardt, the 2001 Division I lacrosse player of the year and a 2017 national champion in lacrosse with Maryland, rushed for three touchdowns in the championship game, despite playing on a bum ankle suffered in practice earlier this week.

"Saw some daylight," said Bernhardt, as soft-spoken as they come. He led an attack that piled up 459 yards against Valdosta State, more than 300 on the ground.

Bernhardt had 26 rushing TDs on the season, to go with 11 passing TDs, in his first season of football since he was in high school in 2016. He led a three-headed QB attack for Ferris State, along with sophomore Malik Mitchell and junior Evan Cummins (Livonia Churchill), who return next season. 

"Those three guys were just so unselfish this year," Annese said.

Also returning is much of a stout-but-oft-overlooked defense, which held Valdosta State, the nation's No. 1 offense, to no second-half points. Led by sophomore defensive end Caleb Murphy (Dowagiac) and senior linebacker Liam Daly (Jackson Lumen Christi), who had a pick-six, Ferris State held Valdosta State (12-2) to its fewest points since 2017. Valdosta State, which averaged more than 500 yards a game coming in, was held to 268 on Saturday.

Ferris State limited Valdosta State to a field goal early, after it recovered a fumble deep in Bulldogs' territory. Less than a minute later, junior Jeremy Burrell (Benton Harbor) reeled off a 78-yard touchdown run, and Ferris State never trailed again. 

"Three-and-out, that's always the goal," Murphy said. "Just playing our football. It was huge, it was huge."

Ferris State joined 1974 Central Michigan, 1975 Northern Michigan and 2002-03 and 2005-06 Grand Valley State as Division II football champions from Michigan. Ferris State also became the fourth school to win Division II championships in football and men's basketball. The Bulldogs won in hoops in 2018.

At the helm was Annese, a Michigan lifer who's career has taken the former Alma standout from Muskegon Catholic Central High, to West Ottawa High, to Montrose High, to Ann Arbor Pioneer High, to Jenison High, to Muskegon, to Grand Rapids CC and finally to Ferris State. The two coaches who led Grand Valley State to national titles, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin, both moved on for bigger jobs in Division I. After winning his title, Ferris State head men's basketball coach Andy Bronkema had a deal in place to coach Detroit Mercy, but it fell apart. Annese, 60, has never really given off that vibe of being one to chase the next big thing.

The next big thing could actually be at Ferris State. There is chatter of Grand Valley State moving up a level, to FCS, and Ferris State could explore that, too, given the precariousness of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The GLIAC has just seven football teams for 2022, with Northwood leaving.

That's for another day. Today and the next several days will be about reflection, just like that quiet team meeting before kickoff Saturday night.

"There's a great deal of love on this team," said Annese, who earned his 100th victory at Ferris State in the national semifinals. "The catalyst for our greatness is love. When people say, 'How do you do it?' ... Love. And that's just my true belief.

"As a coach, you coach to win championships for them, not for you."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984