Road war­rior Bull­dogs one win from fi­nal

The Detroit News - - College Football - BY TONY PAUL The Detroit News

The bracket seed­ings say other­wise, but both sets of the most-re­cent na­tional rank­ings sug­gest to­day’s matchup be­tween Fer­ris State and Min­nesota State-Mankato fea­tures the top two Divi­sion II foot­ball teams in the coun­try.

But it’s only a semi­fi­nal matchup be­tween two un­de­feated teams, 14-0 Fer­ris State and 13-0 Mankato.

They play at 3 p.m. in Min­nesota, the win­ner head­ing to next week’s cham­pi­onship.

The Bull­dogs have never been to the cham­pi­onship game; this is their third semi­fi­nal. How does that play in to the whole pres­sure scale?

“I don’t know about the play­ers, but for me, I coached White­hall girls bas­ket­ball and I felt as much pres­sure as I do (now),” Fer­ris coach Tony An­nese said this week, laugh­ing.

“Ev­ery com­pe­ti­tion, if you’re a com­peti­tor, it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s the na­tional semi­fi­nal game or I’m play­ing pickle ball against my brother or some­thing, you want to win.

“I tell our guys, fo­cus on us. If we’re the best ver­sion of us, I feel good about who we are and our ca­pac­ity to win games.

“Our best is good enough to win an­other game.”

Fer­ris will head on the road for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive week, hav­ing steam­rolled Oua­chita Bap­tist, 37-14 in Arkansas last week.

In the warm weather down south, Fer­ris started strong, tak­ing a 27-0 lead at half­time, and coasted into the semi­fi­nals.

That was the lat­est dom­i­nat­ing per­for­mance on the road by Fer­ris, which is 37-6 in road games un­der An­nese, the head coach since 2012, in­clud­ing 11 con­sec­u­tive road wins head­ing into this week­end.

“I don’t know why. Peo­ple ask me that all the time,” An­nese said. “But these guys are a gritty bunch and they’re ready, re­gard­less where they’re play­ing.”

Even if it’s a frigid 17 de­grees (be­fore the wind chill), as it’s fore­cast to be to­day in Mankota, about an hour-and-a-half south­west of Min­neapo­lis.

“Just an­other day in Big Rapids, to be hon­est,” said junior re­ceiver Jevon Shaw, a for­mer Farm­ing­ton Hills Har­ri­son star.

Like Fer­ris, Mankato — led by Nate Gunn (1,556 rush­ing yards), Ryan Sch­lichte (1,800 pass­ing yards, 18 TDs, seven INTs) and Shane Zyl­stra (1,083 re­ceiv­ing yards) — has never won a na­tional ti­tle; it lost in the fi­nals in 2014.

This is Fer­ris’ first trip to the na­tional semi­fi­nals since 2016, when it lost to North­west Mis­souri State.

“We’ve gotta fin­ish,” Shaw said. “That was the big­gest thing in 2016. We didn’t fin­ish.”

This post­sea­son, the Bull­dogs have tended to start games strong on of­fense, and fin­ish strong on de­fense. Fer­ris gets a lot of praise for the of­fense, and rightly so, with its star quar­ter­back, red­shirt junior Jayru Camp­bell (Detroit Cass Tech), who this week was named a first-team All-Amer­i­can by the Amer­i­can Foot­ball Coaches As­so­ci­a­tion. Se­nior of­fen­sive tackle Devon Johnson earned sec­ond-team hon­ors.

Camp­bell missed the game two weeks ago with a shoul­der in­jury, but re­turned for last week’s vic­tory. Even so, Fer­ris could em­ploy as many as three other quar­ter­backs to­day: junior Travis Rus­sell, se­nior Bret Mooney and red­shirt fresh­man Evan Cum­mins, the trio that led the team to vic­tory in Camp­bell’s ab­sence two weeks ago.

The Bull­dogs ran for 357 yards last week; Mankato has an elite run de­fense.

But the de­fense, with just two se­nior starters in line­backer De­Shaun Thrower (Muskegon) and de­fen­sive tackle Jamil Pollard, has been im­pres­sive, too. In the three play­off games, the Bull­dogs have al­lowed an av­er­age of 18 points. Only once all sea­son have they al­lowed 30 points, and that was in Oc­to­ber to ri­val and peren­nial powerhouse Grand Val­ley State, the last state team to win a Divi­sion II ti­tle (2005-06).

That’s not lost on An­nese, as his team pre­pares to play a Mankato team that was 17th in the na­tion in to­tal of­fense, av­er­ag­ing 460.4 yards a game.

“I felt kind of sneak­ingly op­ti­mistic about our abil­ity to play good de­fense, but I think they’ve even ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions. They’ve been great against the run,” An­nese said.

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