BIG RAPIDS – Led by a dominant defense, the Ferris State football team overcame several injuries this fall to win back-to-back national championships.
The injuries started before the season when defensive back Sidney McCloud tore his labrum. McCloud committed to playing through the pain all season and didn’t miss a single game.
The injuries continued in week one, with quarterback Mylik Mitchell suffering a Lisfranc tear and star wide receiver Xavier Wade sustaining a season-ending injury.
On October 15, the top-ranked Bulldogs faced a true test against rival Grand Valley State University (GVSU). At the time, GVSU was ranked second in the country.
Mitchell returned to the lineup for the game, playing through the pain to lead his team 21-10 after three quarters.
But in the fourth quarter, the Lakers stormed back to take the win 22-21. That win ended the Bulldogs’ 19-game winning streak overall, 43-game regular season winning streak, and six-game streak in this rivalry matchup.
“They celebrated on our field and deservingly so,” said Ferris State head coach Tony Annese. “That’s just the way it is, you know? You’ve got to accept that.”
“Guys have been locked in and realizing that maybe we were a little intoxicated on our own greatness,” said Ferris State senior Brandon Childress.
The Bulldogs went on to win their four remaining regular season games, but the injuries kept on piling up. It was the Ferris State defense and the young players stepping up that made the difference and brought the Bulldogs to a dominant 41-7 win over Davenport at the start of the playoff run.
“When it comes to playoff time, everyone knows that it’s do or die at this point,” said Ferris State junior Dezmin Lyburtus.
The team then faced its toughest test since the GVSU game, a home matchup against No. 5 Pittsburg State. The Bulldog offense helped the team race out to a 14-0 lead, but it was the Bulldog defense that stepped up from there.
Ferris State defensive end Caleb Murphy put up six sacks in the game as the Bulldogs came out victorious, 17-14, to advance to the national quarterfinals.
Now was the time for redemption as Ferris State took to the road for rival GVSU. In a thrilling back-and-forth game, the Bulldogs came out on top 24-21, thanks to a late field goal by Eddie Jewett.
The Bulldogs were back in the national semifinals and back in front of the home fans to face West Florida. The Argonauts were one of three teams that had beaten the Bulldogs since 2018.
“One [loss] was to Valdosta, we avenged it in the national championship last year. One was to Grand Valley in this regular season, we just avenged that. And the third one is West Florida,” said Annese.
The Dawgs scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to beat West Florida 38-17 and punch a ticket back to the national championship for the third time in four seasons.
In the national championship game, Ferris State met Colorado School of Mines, a team making its first ever championship appearance behind a talented quarterback, John Matocha, and a first-year head coach in Brandon Moore.
In the lead-up to the game, Matocha was announced as the Harlon Hill Trophy winner, with Ferris State’s Caleb Murphy finishing second.
Murphy and the Bulldog defense then swarmed Matocha in the championship game. It was the most complete performance of the year by the Bulldogs, a dominant effort on both sides of the ball that resulted in a 41-14 championship victory.
Last season’s national championship run was marked by complete domination on both sides of the ball all year long. But this fall, the Bulldogs overcame injuries and inconsistencies to eventually build themselves into a championship team.
“I’ve been a head coach for 35 years. This is the most amazing of them all,” said Annese. “And I see the guys from the 2021 team that graduated and they’re out on the field and, I mean, we all say the same thing: can you believe this?”