Gators grind out key win for Mullen’s rebuilding program

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Florida tight end Moral Stephens reaches out to catch a 20-yard touchdown pass from Kadarius Toney off a double pass from Feleipe Franks in the third quarter Saturday against Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss. [Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press]

STARKVILLE — As expected, there was some serious dislike expressed toward Dan Mullen throughout the week and again Saturday.

Obviously, Mississippi State fans were, and still are, unhappy that he left them for Florida.

Thousands of MSU fans wore “Dan Who?” T-shirts to Saturday night’s game. And there were some unflattering chants and signs directed at their former favorite coach outside Davis Wade Stadium and within.

Now, we know why they’re so upset.

Because Mullen is a heck of a coach. That’s something he showed in his nine years at MSU — and again Saturday night.

His new team came into his old, and very loud and hostile, stomping ground and pulled out a stunning 13-6 victory before 61,406 mostly unhappy fans.

“It was great,” Mullen said. “It was kind of like Bizarro World. This was the same locker room I was in for nine years. They flipped them around. I’m warming up on the same side of the field. Make sure I take a left instead of a right coming out of the tunnel.

“It’s pretty special for me to come in here (and win). It’s probably the last time I’ll ever been in this stadium, with how the SEC works (with scheduling). To finish with a win. …”

Is big.

And the Gators (4-1 and 2-1 SEC) celebrated with their coach like it was big, like it was special.

Mullen received a Gatorade shower on the field once the win was sealed in the closing minute. In a raucous winning locker room, some players put Mullen on their shoulders and everyone danced as they sang the school fight song together.

“It was a special scene,” junior defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “All the players were jumping around and singing the fight song.

“This is very big for Coach Mullen. Being that this is the school he came from, it’s very big.”

Mullen and his coaching staff clearly won the coaching battle Saturday night.

Mullen’s offensive game plan — quick screens, quick passes — effectively neutralized one of the best pass-rushing defensive fronts in college football, and the Gators were able to sustain drives, especially in the second half.

On defense, coordinator Todd Grantham dialed up a variety of blitzes that clearly rattled standout MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and turned him into a pocket passer, something he appeared uncomfortable being.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Mullen said. “This is one of the toughest environments in college football. A very emotional night against one of the most talented teams out there.

“We came in here and we found a way to win a different style of game. Last week we won with the big play. This week we won by grinding it out. That’s pretty cool.”

The Gators won the game in the second half with a dominant performance on both sides of the ball.

The winning touchdown came midway through the third quarter on a double pass to tight end Moral Stephens. Slot receiver Kadarius Toney took a backward pass from Feleipe Franks and when the defensive backs charged him, he threw the ball to Stephens, who was a few steps behind the MSU secondary in the end zone.

“They’re a really aggressive defense,” Mullen said. “We were driving the ball. We’d been throwing some quick screens and all of a sudden they jump on the screen and the double pass is open.”

The TD gave the Gators a 10-6 lead. They increased it to 13-6 with a 21-yard field goal with 5:22 left in the game by Evan McPherson.

The defense, which dominated the second half, made the lead hold up, limiting the Bulldogs to three first downs (two by UF penalties) and 11 total yards in the fourth quarter.

After two major penalties put the Gators in jeopardy, the defense came up with a stand at the UF 45-yard line. On fourth-and-10, Grantham blitzed safety Donovan Stiner, who came untouched and sacked Fitzgerald for a 10-yard loss with 1:02 left in the game.

Mullen said he didn’t flinch, or say anything, when Grantham called for the blitz that could have left the Gators vulnerable in the secondary if it had been picked up.

“No, go get it,” Mullen said. “Todd and I have been through it before. We’ve played coverage and made plays and we’ve blitzed and not made plays. I’ve learned one thing through the years, shut my mouth in that situation.

“Todd, I’m here if you need me. Because he’s the one that watched all the film, put the game plan together, put the blitz packages in. I need to sit there quietly and let him go.”

Stiner’s sack put the exclamation point on a dominant second-half performance by the defense, which gave up just 1.6 yards a play over the decisive final two quarters.

“It was a mindset of put the ball down and let’s play,” Zuniga said. “Coach always stresses we can play anywhere, anytime, any place. Put the ball down and let’s play. That’s what we did. We definitely (rattled Fitzgerald).”

While the defense was throttling the MSU offense, Franks and the UF offense were sustaining critical drives in the second half.

“I thought he made some really good decisions, good checks and good throws down the field,” Mullen said of Franks. “This is one of the best and deepest defenses in the country. To come in here and execute the plan the way he was able to, I thought he did a very good job.”


Up next

Who: No. 5 LSU (5-0, 2-0 SEC) vs. Florida (4-1, 2-1)

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

69 COMMENTS

  1. Frank’s is indeed getting better, and can be a winner. He is still, however a terrible runner. He is not a bad scrambler mind you, but on designers QB runs or option runs, he stinks. He did have one pitch on an option tonight in which he did wait an extra step for the D.E. to close on him before pitching, but it was still obvious that he himself was not planning on toting the rock; he can’t wait to get it out of his hands!

    I’ve beaten this dead horse before, but if your spread-offense, running QB always looks like he fears a whipping each time he ‘willingly’ runs it, and seems to wince with each tiptoed step, the defense quickly realizes that he is no threat, and you lose an advantage.

    Somebody on the staff please find some guidance for Franks to learn to accomplish a run for it’s intended purpose – he doesn’t Have to enjoy it, but please dont waste the play.

    If he adds a trace of touch on some of his balls, adds a smidgeon of balls to his running, he will really take a big step forward in his development.

    Go Gators,

      • He took that slide 3-5 yards before he had to, it looked more like taking a dive and we consequently didnt make the 1st down on that series. In addition, responding to the article, MSU isnt one of the “best” pass rushing defenses. They got their numbers from 3 games against nobodies and when they played UK they got run over with offense! I would hate to know what the writer thinks a bad offense is since he said the Gators won with a dominant performance on both sides of the ball! I would not call our offense dominant! Over and over they couldnt score after sustaining a drive. 13 points isnt going to win you many games. This looked like a Muschamp team, great on defense and paltry scoring on offense. With no big plays on offense and no turnovers for great yardage or a pick six on defense nor any scoring on special teams as they have been, the struggling offense barely got it done.

    • Pierre- I think your right to a certain degree, but the disagree that it has anything to do with having balls. — Franks is 6’6”, but more importantly has a very lanky running style and stays very high. That’s who he is as an athlete (and he is a hell of an athlete). He is never going to be a Nick Fitzgerald. Why does he have to be? CDM has said many times it’s on him to figure out what his qb does well and play to their strengths. That is precisely what he’s doing, and precisely why we are seeing limited running by Franks (up until now, and probably during his entire reign). That’s why we are seeing the wild cat at times, etc. I prefer to judge this kid by what he does bring to the table, and his progress. And after the beat down he’s taken, to be progressing and having success shows a lot of balls imo.

    • I’m not at all disappointed that Franks avoids contact when he can. It’s hard to survive the season otherwise. When the play is a designed run, it is not at all apparent to me that he doesn’t run with purpose. He’s not a great runner, but good enough to work in this offense, in my opinion.

      • I agree, 67. Here’s a novel idea: why don’t we let our QB be a QB, and only an occasional runner. Let the RB’s provide the bulk of the running game. When the QB has to be the passer and the primary runner, it’s a heavy burden, and you saw Fitzgerald wilt under that burden last night.

          • What Mullen actual does is use the talents and abilities of his players, not some fixed idea of what he wants to do. He did the same with Tim back in the day when things were not working to their satisfaction, I seem to remember.

          • And isn’t that why Franks is playing over Trask, because of his supposed better running skills? Thus he should run hard. Otherwise play the better passer.

          • Yeah, I get that, daz. It’s just my bias showing. I prefer not risking the QB for a 5 or 6 yard run if he can stand in the pocket and deliver the ball downfield for a 15 yard gain. I’m not sure Franks can do that on a consistent basis, but that’s my preference. But hey, if the Gators can win with a running QB, I’ll sit back and enjoy the ride. Go Gators!

          • I hear you daz…but, he has had different styled QBs and always played to their strengths. Alex Smith was a good athlete and not necessarily an elite runner, and he took those 4-5 yard gains to go 2nd and 5 or better on a consistent basis…or picked up first downs, but he was not a Tebow type. Chris Leak was a poor runner, so they catered the offense to his strengths…won a chip. Dak at one time could not read defenses, but developed into an NFL QB. Of course you had Tebow, his prototype, but not necessarily true on what he hangs his hat on…especially when inheriting talent that he did not recruit (aka Chris Leak). This is the case now with Franks…he inherited a guy and is building the offense around him.

            With the defense playing the way it was….the game plan was solid and he was not about to let Franks somehow lose the game.

          • Well, thanks for the input, chief, but I have no interest in advising the Six Million Dollar Man, be it CDM or Colonel Steve Austin. I was simply sharing an opinion, which is what this site is for. I would, however, be interested to see if your own “internet orifice” can produce anything close to a substantive argument that might refute what I said, as opposed the blathering drivel you posted above.

          • Ooh, squat to pee… I am SO insulted!

            Just pointing out it’s easy to question someone’s toughness when you’re not the one being chased by large, young men moving at a high rate of speed, intent on inflicting punishment and pain.

            I am so sorry to have offended your tender sensibilities. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

          • Glad I got your attention, and while I’m sure I must have some sensibilities in there someplace, I rather doubt that they’re tender.

            Now the question I have is: Why are you so intent on coming off like a complete jackass on here, as if everyone is your enemy? If you’re a troll, that of course explains it — but for me to call you that so quickly is something I’d rather not do. Answer?

  2. For those Gator fans who wanted a coach other than CDM, I will point out that the two who were most preferred over CDM, Frost and Kelley, are a collective 0-8 on the season as of Sat, Sep 29. And in the losses, both teams were horrible.

      • I would dispute that about Neb., he does have a culture problem there that I believe will only change with time and new recruits. Neb long ago was known as a tough team which they havent been in decades. Fortunately Mullen got a team that was more willing to buy into being tough again! Neb, not so much.

        • I didn’t say Nebraska didn’t have problems, daz…….but I still think Florida was about at the end of its rope — more so than they were. Frost will get the job done there in time, but I think Mullen’s experience and savvy puts the Gator trajectory ahead of them. UCLA and Chip Kelly? Not so much, and I don’t really care anyway.

        • Daz…good points but the counter is Nebraska is now in the Big 10, not the Big 8/12…where their base of talent forever was in Texas, Oklahoma, Cali & Fla for skill positions. As a state, they don’t have the numbers of big time D1 talent, much like Tennessee (in comparison to GA, FLA, Bama) and now the talent they used to get from the Carolinas is going to Clemson and South Cack. Now, being in the Big 10, they no longer have that footprint and have slowly lost their “brand” since Solich took over. Can they recover…quite possibly…but your footprint now is Big 10 country. Top your point…he is the guy that can do it…but he has a tall order rekindling that fire.

    • Steve I was not a Kelly supporter would have been upset to see his ilk here. Frost is still a newbie and while successful at a group of five it will take him a bit of time to grow. We needed more ‘now’ and long term. CDM was best choice. We will great with him at helm.

    • It’s always easy to say your right in hindsight! Frost has not inherited much talent and apparently neither has Kelly. I definitely didn’t want Kelly and liked Frost over Mullen. We obliviously got the right coach! We had much more team speed than MSU on offense and defense and MSU’s passing game is awful! Maybe we have a lot more talent than is realized we just needed the right coaching!

      • I agree with you but not why you think,
        Dont get ahead of yourself. MSU wasnt all that, having 3 wins over nobody and being stomped by UK exposed them for what they are, not very good. Thats why all week I kept telling everyone here, that we were going to win, guaranteed. I could plainly see that MSU was overanked. I made over 2 grand on that guarantee so I do put my money where my mouth is!… Now hear this, the chance of us beating LSU is slim to none and Slim just left town! MSU I had listed on here as one of our weak team wins that we are going to have this year. I just added SC to that list after their beatdown by UK. Mo is still a question mark and LSU and Ga are probably not! All the rest are wins. that is who we are, a good average team with an above avg. defense and special teams(neither of which showed up in turnovers and scoring yesterday) and a below average offense. BTW, I was thrilled with Mullen as coach and am still thrilled to have him.

  3. Franks had his best game overall, providing leadership, a cool-headed presence on the field and a spirited camaraderie with his teammates on the sidelines. He threw for 219 yards, completing slightly better than two-thirds if his passes despite a drop by at least one receiver and a couple of intelligent decisions to throw away the ball when he didn’t have an open receiver. He’s not Tim Tebow. He’s Feleipe Franks, and the Gators have a talented QB on the way.

    This was our team’s best performance in a very long time. The Gators ground out tough yardage on the ground, took advantage of Mississippi State’s defensive tendencies, and utterly took a star quarterback out of his offense. Our defense limited the Bulldogs to only 202 yards, player big with purpose and zeal from kick-off to the final MSU possession. Six sacks. Todd Grantham turned his guys loose. And on special teams our kick coverage was the best that it’s been in years while sure-handed, quick Freddie Swain smartly took care of a bunch of punt returns.

    Finally, our coach showed all of us his mettle in handling a difficult personal challenge with grace as well as leading his team to the kind of performance we’ve not seen in what seems like forever. The locker room celebration only extended what was taking place between our Gator players, our band and fans after wrapping up a big win as an 8-point underdog on the road. Go Gators!

    • Clyde not seen in forever. Yes pretty much since CDM left to become a head coach. Glad he’s back and yes he showed great class. I have no doubt it was painful for MSU to have him come back as the opposing coach. But he handled the return with class and grace and while I’m sure it was painful for his former players he wants the best for them and they though young will someday realize he had to do what is best for him.

  4. Well said, Clyde! And to those who don’t like Franks’ running style. He admitted that he hadn’t the ”run the ball this much in his entire LIFE”, in a story last week. So please give the kid PROPS for what he does well. EX: I love how he throws a it away when there’s nothing there. And read Clyde’s comment for a reminder of all the other things he’s doing well, too. Go Gators! L.S.U. is ”TOP 5”! Keep on climbing the ladder of comp! And as the ”Stereo MC’s” sang back in my day, ”I wanna’ GO HIGHER!” CHOMP-CHOMP! GO Gators!

  5. When is Scarlett going to learn how to catch a swing pass? On the red zone 4th down play running the wild cat seems like a bad play call. A direct snap to a running back limits the play to a run and makes it easy for the D to load up the box with no threat of a pass.

    • Scarlett is the most surprising disappointment of the season so far, and I don’t think it’s close. He’s a runner that can run through a wall, but it seems like he’s trying to run like a scat back. Do what you do man, let others scat. Based on actual play thus far, he should be third in the rotation behind both Perine and Pierce – just as many people are saying.

      • I would tend to agree, Gator1…..I’d like to make sure the rust is fully knocked off first tho….but next week is really the half way point in the regular season (hard to believe but true). The more carries P & P get, however, I think the more they will shine — O-line liabilities or not.

      • I agree he should be third. The problem he has is that he runs too upright, he needs to get his pad level low like Perine does and then he could be a beast. The play by play guys were talking about this very thing about Scarlett. It was clear , as soon as the RB would change to Perine or Pierce they would immediately have more success.

      • I was just debating that with a former player…who disagreed. Something is different with him after a year off. He always ran high, but much more physical at the point of attack. He is dancing too much. The other backs are North-South, and run angry, Before the season, I would easily said he is #1.

  6. Mullen, like every great head coach, finds the talent in each player and exploits it. Running is not Frank’s talent. He can , however, throw 50 yards on a rope. Franks seems to operate better when the pace is faster and he has less time to think. Let’s go more uptempo in the first half.
    Scarlett is running behind a porous O Line, and is still finding a way to get 4-5 yards a play. Perrine is becoming a capable runner. Pierce mops up for Scarlett and Perrine when the opposing team is gassed. He needs to learn a lot about picking up blitzes and pass routes. The point is we need all three RB’s now to prevent wearout since the OLine can’t get any push.

    • I’m not sure why we have to continue to knock Pierce’s production by suggesting it has come against “gassed” defenses. The Gators only ran 44 plays against CSU and 53 against UT. Just how “gassed” could they possibly be in those situations? On the 4th quarter FG drive last night, Pierce was gaining chunks of yardage before being replaced by Scarlett, who needed two carries to get one yard against the same, supposedly “gassed” defense. I don’t mean to be critical of Scarlett, or you either, GatorNaught, I’d just like to see Pierce get his due.

      • Me too, Joe….and not to knock anybody else’s opinion either, but this 4th quarter stuff is beginning to whiff of a wolf ticket. This kid has the makings of a super-star and I’m willing to bet he’d be just as productive the the 1st quarter too. Not my call however, and Dan Mullen has me beat by about $6 million to figure out when to play him!

      • Joe. There is more to playing running back than just being a running back. Mullen made that clear last week concerning Pierce. But Pierce has a very bright future ahead o him. He likely has a very bright star future. As the former Bama QB said last night during the broadcast, “He is the real deal”.

      • Joe you are absolutely correct and your logic is impeccable on this issue so I dont need to repeat it! True Tampa, Mullen has made it clear that Pierce still doesnt have the “other” aspects of being a proper back yet as you said but I question how long does that take? there might be some of that, him being the senior RB. If it was me I would tell him if he doesnt run with his pad level low in practice he isnt going to be the starting RB and then leave it up to him. Im hoping the coach is pointing out to him his problem is pad level and not leaving it up to him to figure out. It is so obvious that Mick Hubert and Lee McGriff were discussing on air during the play by play!

        • Good point, Smith. But if he is the closer, then, imo, he should’ve had the ball on 3rd and 1 after gaining 9 on 1st and 2nd downs. Switching to Scarlett from the wildcat was nearly disastrous. As daz has pointed out, he certainly had his pads too high on that run, but he did make a great effort on 4th down to come up with a 1st down. The Gators have 4 good backs, counting Davis, and maybe 5 with Clement, so it’s going to be difficult to get them all carries when everyone’s healthy. It’s a good problem to have, though, and the Gators won, so all is good.

  7. Scarlett has yet to hit the hole anything like he did 2 years ago. Been saying for weeks he shouldnt be starting. It took the intense competition with Concrete to get him to finally run super hard. He needs to be demoted to light a fire with this guy. Another case of Mullen seemingly stubborn about second guessing himself about his named starters. The coaches seem overly mesmerized by Scarlets biceps and Franks arm strength. Still waiting for one quarter with Trask and Pierce or Perine.

    • Same idea, and certainly no more based in reality than the first. What are you going to b*tch about when our guys really start to hit their stride?

      Go root for another team. The clown college pulled one out over Louisville. Why not start there?

      • If/when they hit their stride, it will be because of pressure and discipline to perform to their maximum potential, like a Spurrier or Saban demand, not due to rah rah clowns that get all giggly at every turn. Now go back to bed and snuggle up with your pom poms. This board is for analysis, for good or bad, not pom pom girls.