MANKATO – Tony Annese spent 25 years coaching football at four high schools in Michigan and was successful enough to become a member of the state’s coaching Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was named as the coach at Grand Rapids Community College.
There was more success there. In 2012 and at age 50, he became the 13th football coach at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. First, he turned the Bulldogs into a potent force in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that had been dominated by Grand Valley State, and now they will be playing in the NCAA Division II national championship game next Saturday in McKinney, Texas.
Ferris State got there with a 42-25 victory over Minnesota State Mankato in the cold and wind, and on a field with the nubs of dead grass remaining at Blakeslee Stadium in December.
A week earlier, MSU had rallied in a snowstorm on this same field to defeat Tarleton State 13-10 and reach the national semifinals in the D-II playoffs for the third time. The first of those was a loss to Valdosta State in 2012, and now Ferris State will be playing Valdosta — a 30-24 winner over Notre Dame (Ohio) — for the title.
The Mavericks have had a long run in excellence over the past decade, and what has been missing will be missed again this December: a national championship.
The Mavericks carried the No. 1 spot in the rankings, and the No. 1 seed in the West Regional into the playoffs. When the playoffs were reseeded for the semifinals, Valdosta was No. 1, MSU was No. 2, Ferris State was No. 3 and Notre Dame was No. 4.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes of watching Ferris State’s level of athletes at the skill positions to realize the Bulldogs should not be considered underdogs to any D-II team.
The focal point is quarterback Jayru Campbell, a 6-5, 220-pound redshirt junior. Redshirt doesn’t exactly tell the tale on Campbell. He was a four-star recruit and a Michigan State commit as a star at Cass Tech High School in Detroit.
Then, he was charged with body-slamming a security guard at the school. He received probation in a court appearance, and promptly violated that by getting in a run-in with a girlfriend.
Campbell wound up for two years at Garden City Community College in Kansas. He didn’t get big-time offers — presumably because of past troubles — and was recruited by Annese.
“I was a high school teacher for 25 years,” Annese said Saturday after his team’s victory. “I believe in giving young people a second chance. Jayru came to Ferris in 2017, and he’s been nothing but a blessing for us as a person and teammate.”
Annese had two senior quarterbacks in 2017 and Campbell redshirted. He took over this season with these results: a 15-0 record, 46 touchdowns by passing or running, and one of three finalists for the Harlon Hill Award as the D-II player of the year.
MSU Mankato was down 21-10 late in the first half, and then scored nine points in the final minute — a 27-yard pass from Ryan Schlichte to Justin Arnold, and then Casey Bednarski’s 41-yard field goal on the last play.
The MSU defense came out in the third quarter and was able to get some control over Ferris by defending the flanks. The Mavericks forced three punts. Unfortunately for them, the MSU offense had to punt twice and was stopped on downs.
The Mavericks’ play selection was puzzling. They did run the ball 43 times, with Nate Gunn carrying 33 for 149 yards, but if Mike Zimmer had been around, he might have said, “We should’ve run the ball more.”
Gunn ran five consecutive times for two first downs in the middle of third quarter, then a first-down incompletion led to two more and losing the ball on downs at the Ferris State 37. MSU threw seven passes in the third quarter without a completion.
And then late in the third, Campbell threw a pass to the left edge to 5-6 speedster Dion Earls, the coverage was late, and he went 55 yards for a touchdown.
“I thought that was the biggest play of the game,” Annese said.
MSU Mankato finished at 13-1. Coach Todd Hoffner praised his team for a great season, but later admitted, “This is a tough pill to swallow.”
The Mavericks only have six seniors on this roster. Presumably, they will be back for another shot in 2019, and perhaps the pill finally will turn out to be chewable. Then again, Campbell, the former four-star recruit once headed to Michigan State, is only a junior at Tony Annese’s Second Chance U.