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. …”
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.”
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
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850