Bulldog seniors buy in for successful season

Highlights from season included wins over GVSU, Michigan Tech

BIG RAPIDS — Seniors approaching their final season with the Ferris State football program were faced with a rather sobering reality when their longtime head coach Jeff Pierce had been let go at the end of the 2011 season: Buy in or move on.

While buying in to what new head coach Tony Annese and his staff were preaching helped land the Bulldog football program some victories it hadn’t experienced over foes like Grand Valley State and Michigan Tech, the senior class leaves with lasting memories from a roller coaster ride of a season that supplied many ups and downs.

GANGING UP: Ferris State senior linebackers Mike Elias (6) and Tayo Moss attempt to bring down a ball carrier earlier this season against Northwood. The senior class leaves following a 7-4 record — the program’s best mark since 2006. (Pioneer file photo)

“We realized that there was nothing we could do but embrace the change and make the most of the opportunity in front of us,” senior offensive tackle Trevor Smolinski said. “We bought in to what they were selling and I think they brought a new outlook of intensity and spark for our players. I think mentally, we toughened up this season and there were a lot of tests where we came through.”

The class takes a great deal of pride in some of the big wins, including FSU’s first win over Grand Valley State in a 40-24 thumping at Lubbers Stadium in front of a sold out crowd. It was the first win for the Bulldogs over the Lakers since 1999.

FSU also snapped a nine-game losing streak to GLIAC foe Michigan Tech in a thrilling 56-49 victory that showed what the Bulldogs were capable of offensively when they took care of the football.

Senior linebacker Tayo Moss said those wins help bring a sense of pride back into a program that is hoping to transition into a new era of success.

“Obviously the main goals were making the playoffs and a Division II title, but we had a pretty good record and got some wins we haven’t had in a while,” he said.

After suffering a crushing loss on Senior Day to Northwood on Nov. 3 that took the Bulldogs out of contention for a GLIAC North title and possible playoff berth, the team responded in typical fashion: A dramatic road victory over Northern Michigan in which Annese and FSU successfully converted on a two-point conversion to win in the game’s closing seconds, 32-31.

Smolinski said the conversion play, which came after FSU drove the 93 yards to score to make it 31-30 with nine seconds remaining, was a surreal moment to live out as his final repetition as a college player.

“It was a hard-fought game and both teams were pretty banged up, so we were pushing through the pain,” he said. “It was an exciting final drive that went smoothly, and to finish it off by clearing the way for Torico (Searcy) was an awesome way to end my career.

“The first thing that popped into my head when we decided to go for it was: This is going to be the last play of your career,” he added. “I knew I’d never forget that moment, so it makes you focus on it that much more.”

Moss said watching the conversion succeed from the sideline was an incredible moment.

“We were freaking out, the defensive players were holding hands and locking arms. Some guys couldn’t even look,” he said. “You’ve gotta love that. That’s football.”

While both Moss and Smolinski say they consider a 7-4 record — FSU’s best mark since 2006 — an improvement, both agree that they wanted more out of their final campaign.

At the same time, Smolinski said he realizes the path for future FSU teams has been cleared for success, particularly after battling through a 1-10 record during his freshman season.

“It was satisfying knowing this was the best record we’ve had here in a while,” he said. “So given the circumstances, it’s satisfying, knowing that we’ve set the tone for upcoming classes.

“That was such a hard year (in 2009), especially playing as a redshirt freshman,” he added. “I think we took those lessons we learned then and used them to get a little better every year.”

Ultimately, it was a season that provided plenty of moments Smolinski won’t forget anytime soon.

“I always look at the next game as just another game,” he said. “But after getting some of those big wins, it’s kind of humbling to look at the past classes and players and know that you were the first ones to beat them in a long time. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment, but beating Grand Valley with a sold out crowd will stay with me for a long time.”

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