Ferris football claims second consecutive DII national championship

Carson Gulker dives for the endzone during the Bulldogs’ 41-14 victory in the championship. Gulker had three rushing touchdowns in the game. Photo by: Marissa Russell | Multimedia Editor

Over the last century, only four football teams have ever won consecutive national championship rings. The Ferris State Bulldogs are the most dominant of these teams in terms of winning margin.
Thanks to a 41-14 win over the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers, the Bulldogs won their second national title in program history and claimed the largest combined victory margin of any Division II back-to-back championship football team.
“This year was unexpected,” head coach Tony Annese said. “This year was amazing. I’m not a guy that shows a lot of emotion, but this year I am overwhelmed with great feelings about what we were able to achieve.”
Defensively, Ferris dominated against the Orediggers by only allowing a total of four yards rushing, which is the best mark against the Orediggers all season and the best in championship history since 2015. Offensively, the Bulldogs dominated on the ground with 214 yards rushing, 4.3 yards per carry and five touchdowns.
Out of the gate, the Bulldog offense took the field and began with what they do best: running the football. Following his outstanding performance in the national semifinal game against West Florida, senior running back Marcus Taylor took his first two carries for a combined 38 yards to reach the Oredigger’s 35-yard line. Junior quarterback Mylik Mitchell put the Bulldogs inside the five-yard line with a pass to junior wide receiver Dez Lyburtus to reach the two-yard line, where redshirt freshman quarterback Carson Gulker finished the drive with the Bulldogs’ first touchdown of the contest.
Defensively, the Bulldogs gave up a pass interference penalty on the first throw of the game from Harlon Hill award winner and Mines quarterback John Matocha. Then Ferris settled in, defending three consecutive passes with great closing speed by the defensive backs to force an Oredigger punt. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, Mitchell fumbled the football twice and stalled the second Ferris offensive possession.
Following that, the Orediggers made adjustments on their second series but were unable to convert the first down against Ferris’ pressure up front. Following a big collision on a sweep run between Ferris redshirt freshman receiver Brady Rose and Mines strong safety Jaden Williams, the offense picked up a first down but was held in check after a first down sack against Mitchell.
With the second-best statistic pass defense in the country, Ferris continued to bring pressure on their third defensive possession. On a second down, senior defensive tackle Jordan Jones got to Matocha for his fifth and a half sack of the year. Matocha nearly picked up the third down conversion on a scramble, but the Bulldogs forced a punt that would have been returned to the 10-yard line had it not been called back due to a holding penalty.
“The one thing we don’t like is giving up explosive plays, so we make you try to pick us apart,” Harlon Hill runner-up and senior defensive end Caleb Murphy said. “The guys did a great job tackling, and it was as simple as that.”
In the second quarter, the freshmen started up the drive for the Bulldogs. Following a run by redshirt freshman running back Zamir Knighten, Mitchell found Rose for a 29-yard completion to put Ferris in field goal range. The Orediggers stood tall against the Bulldogs on third and nine, but freshman Eddie Jewett hit a 33-yard field goal to extend the lead to 10-0.
Oredigger receiver Mason Karp began their next possession on a seven yard catch from Matocha, but Murphy stepped up and stopped the run on second down. Facing a third down and medium, Matocha was sacked by senior defensive back Cyntell Williams on a cornerback blitz to force another Mines punt.
The Bulldogs began the ninth drive of the game with a little trickery. On a backwards pass from Mitchell, Rose found junior receiver CJ Jefferson down the sideline for a 48-yard connection. Despite the huge momentum boost on the first play, the Bulldogs had to settle for their second field goal of the game with 8:56 to go in the first half.
As the sixth best team in the nation on offensive fourth downs, the Orediggers converted fourth and one on the ensuing series to extend their drive but stalled out again, thanks to run stops by senior defensive end Olalere Oladipo and Murphy and a sack by Oladipo and junior defensive end Ian Hall.
“We literally had to lean on them until we got ‘okay’ on offense,” Annese said regarding his defense. “Our defensive coaches did incredible getting our players going.”
Ferris continued to pound the ground game with Gulker and Mitchell, and they made a splash on a long pass over the middle to Taylor to reach the Bulldog’s 19-yard-line. Then, Jefferson capitalized with the Bulldogs’ second touchdown, taking an option pitch from Mitchell and breaking into the endzone untouched with 32 seconds left in the half.
While it seemed like the Orediggers might run out the clock to halftime, Mines head coach Brandon Moore took a chance that turned terrible. Matocha’s first down pass was deflected and intercepted by senior defensive back Sidney McCloud, who took it to the house to extend the lead 27-0 at halftime. The pick-six was the fourth defensive touchdown on the season for the Bulldogs and the first since round one of the postseason against Davenport.
To begin the second half, Matocha found some rhythm in the passing game and the Orediggers began to move the ball. Following two first downs, the Orediggers were held in check after a fumble forced by sophomore linebacker Nick Thomas set them back nine yards. Ferris then forced a Mines punt that was muffed and recovered by the Orediggers, but the Bulldog defense held strong, thanks to a fourth down sack by Jones.
The Bulldogs went back to the run game until they were held short on their first two drives of the half. The defense responded with a stop of their own on the Orediggers’ third possession, but were gnashed on the fourth series by an Oredigger air assault that was capped off by a 10-yard touchdown pass from Matocha to Michael Zeman. 
In response to the Mines’ first touchdown, the Bulldogs began using their own tactics by spreading the ball around in the passing game. Following completions to Lyburtus and Rose, Taylor broke a pair of 24 and 19-yard runs to get the Bulldogs inside the one-yard line. This allowed Gulker to punch it home for another touchdown — his 30th of the season. Jewett added the extra point to cap off the nine play, 75-yard drive and gave the Bulldogs a 34-7 lead early in the fourth quarter. 
“The defense held it up the whole season,” Taylor said. “When it was time for us to pick it up, we were locked in.”
The Orediggers continued to try and climb back into the game through the air. However, Hall used this opportunity to earn his first solo sack and pass break-up of the game to force the Orediggers’ eighth punt of the game. 
Pinned inside the seven-yard line, the Bulldogs continued to run the ball and punt to keep the clock moving towards seven minutes to go. The Orediggers began their drive from their own 47-yard line and moved the ball following a catch by Tristan Smith and a pass interference penalty call against McCloud. The Orediggers then capitalized on a contested touchdown catch from Johnston to cut the Bulldog’s lead to 34-14. 
Following a failed onside kick attempt, the Bulldogs got the ball back in good field position. Ferris then moved the ball inside the six-yard line after another big catch by Rose. Gulker plunged his way for the Bulldogs’ fourth rushing touchdown of the game with 4:24 to go. 
After a last-ditch effort through the air, Jovan Bayles intercepted Matocha. In victory formation, Ferris took a knee and ran the clock to zero, officially finishing their quest for a second straight national title.
The Bulldogs finished the contest with 432 yards of total offense, earning 21 first downs and an average of 6.3 yards per play. Mitchell led the Bulldog passing attack with 170 yards on 14 of 18 completions. Taylor paced the ground game for Ferris, totaling 104 yards on 13 carries in only his third week at running back. Rose finished the contest with 122 scrimmage yards, followed by Jefferson with 104 and Lyburtus with 31. Jewett was perfect at kicking for the Bulldogs, nailing two field goals and earning five extra points during the game.
Following his second national championship title in two years, Mitchell made sure to credit the defense’s work for allowing the offense to find their groove over the course of the season.
“Last year we had the same guys,” Mitchell said. “They got a little older and a little wiser. It was easy for us to have the time to develop our guys, develop the offense and get where we needed to go.” 
Defensively, the Bulldogs held the Orediggers to only 21 yards in the first half and 212 yards for the whole game. Williams led Ferris with six tackles, followed by Jones and Vincent Cooley with five and McCloud, who added four. Jones led the Bulldogs with 2.5 tackles for loss, while also adding two sacks. Oladipo and Murphy both added 1.5 tackles for loss and Hall finished with 1.5 sacks. McCloud and Bayless each registered one takeaway for Ferris.
After being asked about what was different about last year’s team compared to this year’s team, Murphy said the team’s roles changed with the personnel they had offensively.
“Last year [with] Jared Bernhardt and the offensive line, they had everything they needed, and the defense was good to last,” Murphy said. “This year they lost a little more, but we knew they would come along, and they had our backs like we had theirs.”
As the season came to an extraordinary end in front of a crowd of 6,333 faithful fans in McKinney ISD Stadium, the off-season began, which will include recruiting trips and summer camps. Another quest awaits the turn of 2023, including a potential feat that hasn’t been done since 1995: a three-peat.