They say there’s a first time for everything. For Ferris State football, this past year wasn’t the first time the Bulldogs were national championship contenders. The only difference: 2021 was the year they brought the trophy home.
“The feeling is still enjoyable,” quarterback Mylik Mitchell said. “We’re still juiced up.”
Entering the season as the nation’s third best team according to D2Football.com, the Bulldogs’ journey to McKinney, Texas began with two dominant non-conference wins over former conference opponents Findlay and Ashland.
The first test of the season came in Week 3, where seven turnovers nearly derailed Ferris’ perfect season. Ultimately, the Bulldogs snuck away with a 47-45 win over the Cardinals and got back on track with a 38-0 blowout over Davenport on homecoming.
Despite injuries to multiple starters, the Bulldogs carried on and swept the remaining GLIAC opponents to finish a perfect 10-0 regular season. This included a 35-28 road win over rival Grand Valley in front of a record 17,000 fans in Allendale.
As the postseason opened, the Bulldogs met the Lakers once again in the second round at Top Taggart Field. This time it was no contest, as Ferris blew out the Lakers 54-20 on home turf. The Bulldogs would then take down one of the country’s top defensive teams in Northwest Missouri State and offensive team in Shepherd.
With the stage set for a rematch against Valdosta State, who denied the Bulldogs in the 2018 National Championship game, Ferris faithful trekked to Texas to support the team’s second attempt for the title. After exchanging a combined 37 points, the Bulldogs scored 38 unanswered points and hoisted the trophy for the first time in program history.
“It was pure physical domination,” head coach Tony Annese said on the national championship game. “It was a pleasure knowing that these guys had high expectations for the year and were able to fulfill every goal.”
The Bulldogs finished the season as the nation’s top offensive team with 511.5 yards per game and 47.2 points per game. Ferris was led by former lacrosse national player of the year and fifth year transfer quarterback, Jared Bernhardt. In his lone season as a Bulldog, Bernhardt recorded 2743 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns in ten games.
Tyler Minor led the running back room with 862 yards on the ground, including 10 touchdowns. Marcus Taylor paced the Bulldogs with 863 yards receiving and six scores, followed by Xavier Wade with 793 yards and a team-high ten receiving touchdowns.
On the defensive side, Ferris dominated the season with only 18.29 points allowed per contest. The Bulldogs finished top 15 in yards allowed, takeaways, and opposing third down conversion percentage.
Liam Daly led Ferris with 92 tackles on the season, followed by Cyntell Williams with 71. Caleb Murphy topped the charts with 14.5 sacks per game, earning him a finalist spot for the Cliff Harris Small College Defensive Player of the Year. Murphy also led the team with five forced fumbles while Williams added four interceptions.
“We lost some guys, but we rotate every position,” Murphy said on losing senior players. “I’m not really worried about that.”
Ferris was led by a nationally recognized staff. Annese, who led the Bulldogs to their first national championship in his ninth season, earned the 2021 Division II National Coach of the Year honor. On his staff, defensive coordinator Ryan Hodges earned the award for Division II FootballScoop Coordinator of the Year.
The Bulldogs featured five players in D2Football.com Elite 100 All-America team, those being Gene Upshaw Lineman of the Year Dylan Pasquali, second-team honorees Zein Obeid and Caleb Murphy, and representatives Jared Bernhardt and Jake Boonstra.
As the clock begins for the 2022 season, the Bulldogs will open the season against Central Washington on Sept. 1 at Top Taggart Field. Ferris will follow up their upcoming campaign with featured matchups against 2021 playoff competitor Lenoir-Rhyne (Sept. 10), a homecoming bout against Waldorf (Sept. 24), and the Anchor-Bone Classic against Grand Valley St. (Oct. 15).
While the message will revolve around making it back to McKinney, Annese believes the team has to stay focused on the work ahead.
“I tell my guys all the time you don’t repeat if you talk about repeating. You do the things you do day-to-day to grow and be the team you want to be.”
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