Finished business

Ferris State wins 2021 DII National Championship

Players lift the National Championship trophy after their 58 – 17 victory. Photo by: Marissa Russell | Lifestyles Editor

Confetti. T-Shirts. Hats. Trophy.

What do these items have in common? Five words: “Ferris State Bulldogs” and “National Champions.”

This goal was established more than ever since 2018, where the Bulldogs flew home from McKinney, Tex. without a title. Now, Ferris State finally made the trip home with the extra passenger they have been waiting its entire history for: the National Championship trophy.

Thanks to one of the most dominating performances in DII college football championship history, Ferris State earned their first program title with a 58-17 win versus Valdosta State Saturday in McKinney.

“Finally getting it done for our staff and our players, it’s just surreal,” Senior Dylan Pasquali said. “I can’t thank every single person for this great opportunity at Ferris State University.”

The ball began in the hands of the Valdosta State. On the first possession, the Blazers began looking in the air despite their number nation rushing ranking. Following an opening incompletion, Valdosta went to the ground for the next two plays. Although quarterback Ivory Durham ran for nine yards on second down, the Bulldog defense held strong and stuffed the third-down run forcing an eventually deflected punt to the Ferris 48-yard line.

The Bulldogs began with what got them to the national title game: a stout rushing attack. Almost identical to the first play of the semi-final game against Shepherd, Bernhardt’s opening carry broke away for a 64-yard run. The only difference? Bernhardt found the endzone on the same play and gave the Dawgs an immediate 6-0 advantage.

“Coach Annese mentioned we were going to run that first play before the game,” Bernhardt said on the opening touchdown run. “It was either going to be a run if the linebacker went out with Marcus (Taylor) or throw it if he stayed in. I ended up running it, bounced it out, and saw some daylight.”

Valdosta State finally got going offensively after the opening drive with a big pass down the sideline to Brian Saunds. After a couple of big plays from Durham, the Blazers took a one-point lead on a TD pass to running back Seth McGill.

For Bernhardt, his seasoned lacrosse career included two big trips to the National title game. When it came to the bright light of McKinney ISD Stadium, the senior wasn’t fazed. #12 scampered for his second huge gain of the day on a read-option keeper for 48 yards. Bernhardt would follow the offensive line’s push and punch it in from five yards out one play later to regain a 13-7 advantage.

“We’re fortunate to have incredible athletes on this team. The offensive line just performs how they’re supposed to,” Pasquali said. “We couldn’t do anything without them as well as they couldn’t do anything without us.”

Ferris’ defense began in zone coverage early on in the game. The second-team all-region honoree quarterback found his mark multiple times in a big way on the following possession. The first, a big first down catch by Saunds. The second, a touchdown to Travon Roberts to give the Blazers the lead back at 14-13 with 3:44 remaining in the quarter.

With the momentum in Valdosta’s favor, the Bulldogs looked to silence the Valdosta fans on the ground. Unfortunately, an awkward tackle caused Bernhardt to fumble the ball and limp over to the medical tent. Despite the good field position in the red zone, Ferris State held strong and kept the Blazers to a field goal.

“It was huge,” Murphy said on the crucial defensive stop. “I think throughout the whole playoffs when we got into a goal-line situation, we have done our best to get off the field.”

With Bernhardt being evaluated on the sideline, it was Mylik Mitchell’s turn under center. Despite the change in play-caller, the Bulldogs seemed to have been more motivated to keep the offensive success going. On the second play of the drive, junior Jeremy Burrell broke free on a read-option run to the right and stiff-armed a Blazer on his way to the endzone for a 78-yard touchdown. Barnett would make the extra point to take a 20-17 lead.

The Blazers would take to the air to try to stop the momentum swing. Facing a third down and long, Durham’s pass was broken up by Alex Thomas and into the hands of Cyntell Williams for the Bulldogs first takeaway of the night.

Coach Annese elected to keep Mitchell in the game despite the sideline reports of Bernhardt being ready to return. After an early incompletion, a QB draw and scramble run set up a fourth and one. With time to talk after a Valdosta time-out, Annese decided to insert Bernhardt to pick up the first down on the ground. The Bulldogs began to use the jet sweep concept to pick up chunk yards and move the sticks. After moving to the two-yard line, it was Bernhardt who pushed his way through the pile and reach the endzone for the 23rd time of the year.

“He’s so extraordinary,” Annese said regarding Bernhardt’s performance. “He’s a special athlete and special young man. I’m really going to miss him.”

With a 27-17 lead, the defense continued to apply pressure on the Valdosta QB. The Bulldogs began to force quick throws and scrambles from Durham. After a big tackle on 2nd and 10 from Liam Daly, an outside scramble led Durham out of bounds courtesy of pressure from first-team All American Caleb Murphy. Valdosta would punt into the endzone as the Ferris faithful erupted from the defense effort.

“Our defense was different than in 2018,” Coach Annese said. “They made it a lot easier. Give credit to Coach Hodges and the rest of the coaching staff for getting our defense going.”

The next drive began with a series of option pitches to C.J. Jefferson for big gains. The offense continued to pound on the 107th ranked rushing defense in the nation, using only four plays to reach Blazer territory. After an awkward fall from Bernhardt, senior Tyler Minor took over the drive and put the Bulldogs into the endzone for the fifth time. The nine-play, 80-yard drive gave Ferris a 34-17 advantage with 1:36 to go in the half.

Following a failed fake punt attempt, the Bulldogs got the ball back at mid-field.

Mitchell and the offense looked to extend the lead with just about a minute to go. After a near turnover on a fumble, Mitchell responded with a perfect pass in stride to Tyrese Hunt-Thompson on completion over the middle. Hunt-Thompson would outrun the defender to the endzone and give the Bulldogs a 41-17 lead at the half in front of their devoted fans.

“It’s like we got an extra man on the field,” Mitchell said on the Bulldog fans’ energy. “They show out every day, whether it’s sleet, snow, or rain. They would probably even be out there in a tornado. They’re amazing and I appreciate them so much.”

While many thought the unbelievable performance couldn’t continue, the second play out of the half resulted in a 73-yard run by Minor putting the Bulldogs within 12 yards of extending the score. Sadly, Ferris State was denied a fourth-down conversion and came out with zero points.

As mentioned many times by the team in prior contests, the Bulldogs always look to play complementary football on both sides. The defense looked to stop Valdosta on their first possession following the turnover. After a penalty gave Blazers a first down, the Bulldogs showed why their defense was considered underrated. On second and short, Olarere Oladipo crushed Durham on a sack and knocked the ball onto the Texas turf. Senior Sam Girodat would jump on the football and recover the fumble at the 20-yard line. The Bulldogs would stall offensively, but a 32-yard field goal by Barnett pushed the lead to 27.

Following a third Valdosta punt, the offense had a chance to break an NCAA DII football record for most points in a single postseason with a touchdown. On second down, Mitchell unleashed a huge pass down the sideline to Xavier Wade, who caught it and preceded to outrun the Blazer secondary down to the eight-yard line. Three plays later, it was quarterback Evan Cummins who plunged into the endzone and the record books.

“We are coached well,” Mitchell said regarding the change in quarterbacks. “We do what we got to during the week, we stick together, and we come out a play ball. That’s what we were born to do.”

Linebacker Liam Daly and Major Dedmond celebrate on the sideline after Liam Daly’s interception return for a touchdown. Photo by: Marissa Russell | Lifestyles Editor

With the Bulldogs leading 51-17, the only thing missing from the dominant performance was a defensive touchdown. The Bulldogs delivered on the preceding possession thanks to a “pick six” by Daly. The damage was done and the fans began to chant towards Valdosta to “warm up the buses.”

“Coaches put me in a great position,” Daly said on the interception. “Sam flushed him out of the pocket, he threw it to me, and I finished it from there.”

From there, both teams began to funnel in their seniors and bench players as the fourth quarter began. Valdosta would run out of downs twice in their lone possessions, while Ferris would fumble and eventually run the clock out on a nine-minute final drive.

As the clock hit zero, the pandemonium began. Players, coaches, and fans began to funnel onto the field to celebrate the program’s first National Championship on the center logo. The trophy found its way to the stage, where head coach Annese raised his first collegiate title as the confetti fell from above.

When asked about the feeling, Coach Annese immediately addressed the program’s culture.

“Our culture is authentic. It’s real. We love each other. You coach to win championships for them, not for you. Just seeing the happiness on their face is awesome.”

Ferris State proved their number six overall rushing rank correct with a whopping rushing 463 yards on the big stage. Bernhardt led the way with 148 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries. Minor added 125 yards on eight carries and Burrell contributed 103 yards on four carries. Minor, Burrell, and Cummins each had a rushing score. Mitchell commanded the Bulldog passing attack going three of six for 122 yards and one touchdown. Hunt-Thompson finished with the lone TD reception for 47 yards. Xavier Wade added a 72-yard reception and CJ Jefferson added 29 yards on four touches. 

“Looking at our offensive line, we knew we could get at them (running the ball),” Bernhardt said on the run-heavy game flow. “But I always had my mindset ready to throw it.”

Although Valdosta State came into the game with the fifth-best rushing offense in the country, they were held in check by the Bulldogs, logging only 110 yards rushing and 268 yards total in the contest. Daly led the ‘Dawgs with 13 total tackles, followed by Murphy and Williams with seven. Oladipo and Murphy each contributed one tackle for loss and a sack in the contest. Oladipo forced the only Blazer fumble while Williams and Daly each added an interception. 

“After the first quarter, we came together and had a short memory,” Daly said on the defense’s performance. “We played great from there on out.”

The Bulldogs mission is complete. After a tough 49-47 loss to the Blazers in 2018, Ferris State got their revenge in dominating fashion. For Coach Annese, getting those players a title from the ’18 team made the moment even more special.

“We had the guys talk about their ‘why’ today and I picked the 18 that were here in ’18. It was life-altering to even be a part of the National Championship. Now that we won it, it’s even better.”

For more stats, national championship gear, and more, visit