'A monumental thing': Ferris State wins first DII national championship in dominating fashion

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Ferris State waited a long time for this moment.

It was the national runner-up in 2018 and then lost in the semifinals to the eventual national champion in 2019, before the 2020 season was completely wiped out by COVID-19.

Now, the Bulldogs are Division II football champions for the first time, steamrolling Valdosta State of Georgia, 58-17, on Saturday night in McKinney, Texas, behind a bruising offensive line and a stable of athletic runners.

Confetti flies in the air as the Ferris State Bulldogs celebrate winning the NCAA Division II college football championship after defeating Valdosta State, 58-17, in McKinney, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021.

Behind three first-half rushing touchdowns from lacrosse star-turned-Ferris State QB Jared Bernhardt, Ferris State pounced early and never let up. The Bulldogs took a 20-17 lead late in the first quarter on a 78-yard touchdown run by Jeremy Burrell, and never trailed again. They didn’t allow a point again.

The performance capped perhaps the most dominant season in Division II football history, and at least in Division II postseason history. Ferris State's 208 points (in four games) are the most in DII playoff history.

"I love these guys," said senior offensive lineman Dylan Pasquali, of Trenton. "And we've been the most dominant program in the nation, easily, by far."

Pasquali and his fellow linemates pushed around Valdosta State so much early, that Ferris State started with the run and never really abandoned the plan, piling up 459 rushing yards for the game — including more than 300 in the first half. The Bulldogs didn't complete a pass until there were 11 seconds left in the first half, when Mylik Mitchell found freshman receiver Tyrese Hunt-Thompson (Casspolis) for an 11-yard score to make it 40-17 at the half. A botched Valdosta State fake punt set up Ferris State's short field just before half.

Ferris State (14-0) never punted, scoring an every drive but one — when Bernhardt fumbled late in the first quarter, giving Valdosta State good field position. The Bulldogs' defense stepped up, though, forcing a field goal, which made it just 17-13 Valdosta State.

Burrell scored less than a minute later, and the rout was on.

"It was huge," Ferris State coach Tony Annese said. "The old head coach was having kind of flashbacks to 2018, we score, they score, we score, they score. I got a little paranoid.

"That stop kind of kept us where we weren't trading scores with them."

Valdosta State (12-2) beat Ferris State, 49-47, in the 2018 championship game.

Bernhardt finished with 148 rushing yards on 14 attempts and the three scores, almost all of that in the first half, which he played on a bad ankle — suffered in practice Tuesday, then aggravated on the fumble Saturday night. He was limited in the second half, but by then, it didn’t matter.

Ferris State quarterback Jared Bernhardt rushes into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half.

Senior running back Tyler Minor (Flint Carman-Ainsworth) rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown, and Burrell (Benton Harbor), a junior, rushed for 103.

Senior linebacker Liam Daly (Jackson Lumen Christi) had a pick-six in the third quarter to close the scoring.

Ferris State's defense held Valdosta State, the No. 1 total offense in the country (Ferris State came in No. 2), to just 268 total yards. Valdosta State came in averaging 527.2 yards and 43.2 downs.

In a show of class, Ferris State, inside Valdosta State’s 5-yard line, kneeled out the clock three times rather than go for the score that would’ve set a Division II championship-game record.

Annese got his Gatorade both with more than 3 minutes remaining, and as the final seconds ticked off, fans rushed the field, including several former players mobbing the current players — 18 of whom were on the 2018 runner-up team, several of whom had a decision to make whether to return for 2021.

"This," said sophomore defensive end Caleb Murphy (Dowagiac), "is what they came back for."

The first man to get his hands on the championship trophy wasn't a four- or five-year guy, but rather Bernhardt, who played five seasons of lacrosse at Maryland — he played in two national finals and won a national championship in 2017 and was named the Division I player of the year this year — before transferring to Ferris State to play football, which he hadn’t played since high school.

Bernhardt didn’t know if he’d ever play a down for the Bulldogs, but quickly emerged as the ringleader of Ferris State’s three-QB attack.

The third QB, junior Evan Cummins (Livonia Churchill), also rushed for a touchdown in the title game. Between the three QBs, they rushed for four TDs and threw for one.

They've been doing that all year.

"I don't think it's really set in yet," said Bernhardt, rocking the national-championship hat and t-shirt.

From left, Ferris State defensive lineman Jordan Jones (2) cheers as defensive tackle Austin Simpson (91) hoists the championship trophy.

Ferris State joins 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 joined its men’s basketball program, which won its first national championship in 2018. Ferris State posted a social-media video late Saturday night of basketball coach Andy Bronkema making room in the school's trophy case for the football national-championship trophy. Truth was, that video was taped, as Bronkema was in Texas for the game, despite a game in suburban Chicago on Monday.

Ferris State becomes the fourth school to win DII titles in football and men's basketball, joining Northwest Missouri State and current Division I schools Jacksonville State and North Alabama

For Annese, this actually is his third national title; he won two at Grand Rapids Community College before he was hired by Ferris State ahead of the 2012 season.

"Obviously, I'm elated for everybody," said Annese, who won his 100th game at Ferris State in the national semifinals. "It's just a monumental thing to have happen.

"It'll really probably change Ferris State forever."

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984