The Bulldogs’ goal all season long was to get back to the national championship. On Saturday, Dec. 11, Ferris achieved that goal and punched their ticket with a big 55-7 win over Shepherd University.
“I thought we played great in all phases,” head coach Tony Annese said. “I was very pleased with our defense. With our offense, not a lot of people have 200-yard rushing quarterbacks so that’s awesome too. Our special teams also played really solid as well. It was a complete victory and we’re off to Texas.”
Annese recorded his 100th victory as the head coach of the Bulldogs with the win over Shepherd.
In front of the Ferris faithful for the final time of 2021, the Bulldogs put together their largest margin of victory on the season with the 48-point win. The Bulldogs were led to victory thanks to a dominant rushing attack of 453 yards, their largest single-game rushing mark since 2014 against Tiffin (556 yards). Ferris State’s huge game on the ground started on their first offense snap of the game, where Jared Bernhardt scampered for 61 yards on a designed quarterback run. On the very next play, Bernhardt found the endzone for a five-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs an early 7-0 advantage.
The Shepherd Rams came into the contest as the #1-ranked scoring offense in Division II at 46.4 points per game, leading the 2nd ranked Bulldogs by less than a point (45.7). After an opening drive punt, the Rams decided to go for it on fourth down and four at the Ferris State 43-yard-line. Despite getting open on the slant, Josh Gontarek’s potential first down reception was denied thanks to break-up by junior Cyntell Williams. Unfortunately for the ‘Dawgs, a fumble on the next possession gave the Rams the ball back and the game-tying touchdown reception by Gontarek.
“Their quarterback, who’s probably the (future) Harlon Hill Trophy winner, is as good as they get,” Annese said on Shepherd QB Tyson Bagent.
While the fans began to feel tension, Annese and the Bulldogs went back to business offensively. Using a variety of quarterback draws and designed zone runs, Bernhardt led the offense back into scoring position at the 16-yard line. Two plays later, Bernhardt punched in his second rushing TD to give Ferris State a 14-7 lead.
After giving up their first touchdown and a drive-opening 39-yard run to Shepherd, the defense locked in and began to give the Rams trouble moving the ball. Facing a third and long, Bagent was sacked by defensive end Caleb Murphy. On the next play, the Rams punt attempted was foiled by a fumbled snap. Ferris’ Konnor Near would recover at the 34-yard line. The offense would punch in their third rushing touchdown of the day via Bernhardt as the first quarter clock hit zeros.
“Our defense prides ourselves in never giving up,” junior defensive back Sidney McCloud said. “A team can be on the one-yard line but we will pin our ears back and give the complete maximum effort. That’s just how we are built.”
Trailing 21-7 after the opening quarter, the Rams used two big plays to reach the redzone for the second time. Facing a third-and-goal, the ‘Dawgs dialed up pressure and brought down Bagent thanks to a sack by Austin Simpson. Shepherd would then settle for a field goal try, which led to their second special teams’ fumble on the day.
On the ensuing play, a 62-yard jet sweep run by C.J. Jefferson put the ‘Dawgs within 13 yards of making it a three-touchdown game. Two plays later, who else but Bernhardt crossed the goal line for the fourth time. Sy Barnett’s fourth extra point extended the Ferris lead to 28-7 with 9:46 remaining until halftime.
“Sometimes you can’t control some of that stuff,” Bernhardt said regarding the injury that forced him to miss last week’s game. “Injuries are a part of football. Off the field, I’ve been able to get treatment, take care of my body, and stay on top of it as much as possible.”
Following a punt by Shepherd, the Bulldogs began to surge once again on the ground with various receiver and tailback carries. After nine plays and 74 yards, the Bulldogs faced a fourth down and three at the Ram 15-yard line. The Bulldogs ultimately decided to take a timeout and design a run for #12. Out of the timeout, Bernhardt ran through a gaping hole created by the offensive line and reached the endzone untouched for his fifth touchdown on the day. Three stalled drives would run out remaining five minutes of the half with Ferris State leading 35-7.
“Our guys have been so gritty,” Annese said on the stellar play despite the weather. “When we hit the field on Tuesday for practice, the ‘feels like’ temperature was seven (degrees). Our guys had an extraordinarily good practice and I feel it has become the mentality.”
The Bulldogs would begin the third quarter a little slower than anticipated, punting for only the second time in the contest. This gave the Rams a chance to get back in the game with their high-powered offense. Facing fourth and three, the Bulldog defense forced an incompletion and turned over the Rams on downs for the second time.
Ferris State would take over and begin to throw the football with the snow beginning to lighten up. Despite facing two fourth downs on the drive, big running plays from Bernhardt would keep the ‘Dawgs’ drive alive. With 4:00 to go in the third, a reverse trick play would result in a touchdown for freshman Tyrese Hunt-Thompson. While the extra point was wide, the damage was done with the lead extended to 34.
As the sixth best team in DII in opposing third down conversion percentage, the Bulldogs continued to make big plays on third down. Facing their 15th third down of the game backed against their own 12-yard line, Ferris State prevailed with their 18th interception of the season and the third for Caleb Smith.
“This was a game we knew would be on the big stage with Shepherd’s high scoring offense,” McCloud said. “We wanted to mention how dominant we could be on defense.”
After a 70-yard run back from Smith, Ferris’ offense took over at the Shepherd 15-yard line. On his first snap of the contest, quarterback Mylik Mitchell only needed one pass to find Hunt-Thompson in the endzone and give Dawgs’ 48-7 lead.
“It’s credit to coach with the game plan,” Bernhardt said on all three quarterbacks playing and scoring. “Each week in practice, we’re all getting the same amount of reps and enjoying that. He has confidence in all of us. It’s really special.”
While the game still had just over 15 minutes remaining, the celebration seemed to begin in Top Taggart. The starters began to file to the sideline and give way for the second teamers to finish the fourth quarter. Ferris State would add another insurance score later on courtesy of a seven-yard score from Evan Cummins to solidify their semi-final victory.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” Annese said. “Two years ago, we had a painful loss to West Florida. The guys decided to lock in for 2020. Then we didn’t get a year in 2020, so they locked in for 2021. It’s very special and a great group of young men who have really committed themselves.”
Ferris State finished with 560 yards of total offense as well as 29 first downs. Bernhardt led the charge with 201 yards rushing on 21 carries and 5 TD’s. Running backs Tyler Minor, Jeremy Burrell, and Carson Clark combined for 97 yards on 24 carries. Bernhardt (7-11) and Mitchell (4-4) both finished with 51 yards passing and Mitchell had the sole passing TD. Jefferson finished with 107 yards on 7 touches, followed by Marcus Taylor with 40 yards on four touches. Barnett finished 7/8 on PAT’s.
The Dawgs’ defense held the powerful Rams offense to only 299 yards through the 60 minutes of play. Senior Liam Daly led with nine tackles, followed by Cyntell Williams, Caleb Murphy, and Sam Girodat with five each. Murphy added two sacks and two tackles for loss while Austin Simpson added one of each.
Ferris State will now move on to face an all too familiar foe in Valdosta State in the NCAA DII National Championship Game. Both teams met in the title game back in 2018, where the Blazers edged the Bulldogs 49-47. For Bernhardt, this scenario is exactly why he decided to become a Bulldog.
“I saw the West Florida game. I saw the Valdosta game. At Maryland, we lost to Virginia in the national championship. I told coach I wanted to come to a team that was going to compete and win a championship.”
The game will kick off from McKinney, Tex. on Sat., Dec. 18th at 9PM EST. For all game information and news, visit the “Football” tab at www.ferrisstatebulldogs.com