Florida's win in Starkville special for Mullen, a statement game for Gators
Florida’s 13-6 win at Mississippi State Saturday wasn’t a work of art and, at times, it was plodding and tedious. There were very few highlight-reel moments and the outcome was always in doubt.
But make no mistake. When it was all said and done, Florida’s win in Starkville was beautiful.
Achieved in a frenzied, we-waited-all-year-for-this environment at Davis-Wade Stadium at Scott Field that was unbelievably loud even by SEC standards, Florida’s victory over the Bulldogs was a masters-level class on buy-in and belief.
It had to be a special win for Florida coach Dan Mullen, who spent nearly a decade building a consistent winner in Starkville, a place where you weren’t supposed to be able to do that.
In truth, Mullen’s new program won Saturday night’s game by beating Mississippi State at its own game.
Fueled by a fast and physical defense that repeatedly answered the bell and getting just enough from an offense that controlled the clock, scored when it had to and protected the football, Florida captured a program-building, statement victory in a game most analysts gave the Gators little chance to win.
The Gators looked every bit the part of a program whose players are bought in to what their new regime is selling and tired as hell of all the losing that came before. You simply don’t win — and in truth, control — a football game in that special of an environment if you aren’t coming together as a team and program.
The Gators were ready for the challenge from the opening kick. They had a wonderful game plan. Offensively, Florida largely neutralized State’s dominant front with quick-execution plays that sought to get playmakers headed downhill in space.
Defensively, Gators linebackers did an exceptional job of contain, making Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald play the game between the hashmarks. They brought a host of exotic pressures when the Bulldogs tried to pass their way out of trouble.
But more important than having the right game plan, the Gators kept competing, even when they faltered and plodded in executing the plan.
Five false start penalties due to crowd noise? Fine. How about an offense that repeatedly converted first downs despite starting multiple possessions behind the chains?
Throw an interception on the opening possession of the second half? Fine. How about a three-and-out and a six-play, 7-yard touchdown drive that featured a physical, power running game and the electric playmaking ability of Kadarius Toney? It’s that type of scoring drive, the ideal blend of power and speed, that’s been missing from this program for most the decade.
Struggle to sustain the running game throughout possessions? Fine. How about Feleipe Franks, your redshirt sophomore quarterback who is starting only his fourth road game, completing 71 percent of his passes for 220 yards, including multiple high-degree-of-difficulty throws into extremely tight coverage.
In other words, the Gators did what good teams do. They picked each other up and refused to let the man next to them fail.
They didn’t win every individual battle and they were hardly flawless in victory. The Gators committed 11 penalties to State’s two, numbers that Dan Mullen isolated almost immediately in his postgame press conference.
After forcing 14 turnovers in the season’s first four games, the Gators produced zero Saturday night.
After showing flashes of explosive offense early in the year, the Gators’ longest play from scrimmage Saturday night was a 22-yard run by Lamical Perine that included 10 yards after contact.
It wasn’t a masterpiece, but the Gators were collectively the more physical, fast football team. In the end, as in so many seasons past, they were able to rely on a brilliant defense to seal the victory.
With Mississippi State’s defense valiantly holding the Gators offense at bay and keeping it a one-score game, Florida’s defense came up with seven consecutive stops to close the game, a streak of dominance that began late in the second quarter and ended when sophomore safety Donovan Stiner pummeled Fitzgerald on a fourth-and-10 blitz to give the Gators the ball back and seal the win.
For a defense much-maligned for failing to tackle and match Kentucky’s physicality only three weeks ago, it was a remarkable performance, and one that goes beyond the return of defensive leaders Cece Jefferson (who was dominant Saturday night) and David Reese (who was excellent as always).
This performance was about buy-in and investment, a positive and perhaps ahead-of-schedule response to a coaching staff that demands attention to detail and rewards it by putting players in a position to be successful.
Florida is a long way from a finished product. The power running game still sputters at times, there’s not enough depth at linebacker or cornerback and the quarterback is very much a work-in-progress, albeit an improving one.
But Florida made a statement about buy-in, resolve and culture change Saturday night. The reward for that buy-in is they leave Starkville with a victory likely to be one their fans remember as a foundation-builder, the night Florida left the college football wilderness and began the tedious process of becoming elite again.
It doesn’t get any easier. The next step in the journey will come in a week, when a powerful LSU team comes to visit The Swamp.
It’s going to be a big day in Gainesville. CBS will be in town, and Florida legend Tim Tebow will be honored at halftime. The town will be abuzz by Thursday evening and the building will be an insane-asylum.
It should be.
What better way for Florida’s fans to reward a team that’s bought-in?