Building on belief

“As far as battles on the field, people are going to ask me a lot about winning that Grand Valley battle. We’ve gotta win the everyday battle first.”

BIG WIN: The Ferris State football team gets ready to take the field Saturday at Grand Valley State. (Courtesy photo/Ben Amato)

That was how Ferris State football coach Tony Annese addressed the Lakers during his introductory press conference on Dec. 22, 2011. It wasn’t exactly Brady Hoke pounding the podium with “Most. Important. Game. On. Our. Schedule.” or flat out predicting victory over your hated rival, if you’re sicked and twisted and prefer Jim Tressell as a comparison.

The reason why Annese wasn’t giving a definitive prediction on how the Bulldogs would handle GVSU, of course, was because his team needed to “take care of Ferris State, first” as he put it after his team blew by the Lakers after a shaky first quarter in a 40-24 thwarting that easily ranks as the program’s biggest victory in many years.

Many very good teams and great players have taken the field for the Bulldogs since 1999, but none of them were able to knock off the Lakers – arguably the best Division II football program of the 2000s.

In recent years, however, the game had felt more out of reach than normal. With the exception of the classic 2009 game that saw the Bulldogs nearly upset the Lakers, 17-10, most of the games haven’t been close.

So how exactly did the Bulldogs walk in to a sold out Lubbers Stadium on Saturday and rush for 457 yards, averaging 7.5 yards a carry against a team it hadn’t beaten in 13 years? How were they hearing chants of “FSU” in the fourth quarter after Laker fans had already crowded the exits? According to Annese, it came down to believing in what they did without comparing their personnel to GVSU’s.

“(Grand Valley) was what everyone wanted to talk about on Dec. 22, but I thought we didn’t need to focus on Grand Valley, but on ourselves,” he said following the win. “Our kids did that. Even on Tuesday (of game week) when we were talking before practice, we didn’t think in GVSU terms but in terms of Ferris State.”

So it’s not surprising that the Bulldogs ended the streak on Saturday by being the best version of themselves – a team that runs the ball in a way that isn’t flashy, but effective, while shutting down a Lakers passing attack that was among the best in the country.

The running game, which has only been shut down by itself with turnovers earlier in the season, featured three 100-yard rushers in quarterback Jason Vander Laan, who earned GLIAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 185-yard, two touchdown effort that ultimately sparked the Bulldogs’ 40-7 outburst to close the game out. Vander Laan got help from an offensive line that also opened up holes for running backs Korey Ringer (131 yards) and Jamaal Jackson (107).

There was nothing pretty about it. The Bulldogs were simply winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, while the defense held GVSU quarterback Isiah Grimes to 14-of-13 passing for 188 yards and one touchdown to go with one interception.

“We’re not a great passing team, so we play to our strengths,” Annese said. “We’re not a flashy offense, but we were productive in chewing up clock and getting the first downs when we needed to.”

“When the walked into the lockerroom at halftime, there were three things written on the board: Minimize big plays, take care of the ball and don’t let them win the special team battle. We were pretty good at doing those things.”

FSU threw one second half interception late in the game, but the Bulldogs held GVSU scoreless in the second half and 27 points below their season average of 51 – a tribute to a solid defensive performance.

“In the last two weeks, we’ve played two of the best wide receivers in the league and we’ve stoned them both,” Annese said. “We’ve played a lot thicker in the secondary and our front four has held up very well and put pressure on (GVSU’s) quarterback. Our linebackers were incredible.”

So where does this leave the program going forward? Annese was quick to point out that more great competition lies ahead, including a date with Hillsdale (4-2, 4-1) on Saturday during Ferris State’s homecoming celebration. That huge test will be followed by encounters with Wayne State (4-1), Michigan Tech (4-1) and Northwood (4-2).

It may have been the biggest win in recent memory for a program still trying to sculpt its identity, but for Annese and the Bulldogs, it was simply a big victory among the everyday battles they’ll continue to face.

“I hate to say it, but it resonated quite prominently that it was almost like we were waiting for something bad to happen,” Annese said of the program’s mentality entering the season. “Our players have had to overcome that and now the feeling is that we can get this done. Our work ethic and attitude have been great, and now the belief system is starting to develop.”

It was a signature win for Annese and his staff in their first season. For the FSU fans and Big Rapids community, it provided a reason to believe in the future.

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