STARKVILLE, Miss. — To beat a ranked team on the road, it usually takes some creativity and and aggressive play calling.
The Gators produced both on both sides of the ball Saturday night in the decisive second half against No. 23 Mississippi State.
The winning touchdown came on a 20-yard pass from slot receiver Kadarius Toney to tight end Moral Stephens midway through the third quarter. Toney took a lateral pass from QB Feleipe Franks and then launched a strike to Stephens in the end zone.
“I knew they were going to bite, when they did it gave me just enough time to get a touchdown,” said Toney, a former high school quarterback. “I just needed to make a perfect throw. It was kind of an easy one because I played quarterback. It was like kind of getting back in a rhythm.”
The Florida defense also got creative in a dominant second half. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham dialed up numerous blitzes, including the safety blitz by Donovan Stine on fourth-and-10 that resulted in a big sack that sealed the win in the closing minute.
“In the second half, we made adjustments to their offense,” junior outside linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “We felt that the only way we could win the game was by stepping up, and that’s what everybody did.”
The Gators’ already injury-depleted secondary sustained a significant blow early in the game when starting cornerback Trey Dean III was ejected for targeting on MSU punt returner Keith Mixon.
Dean fell on top of Mixon after he muffed Tommy Townsend’s punt. The officials flagged Dean for a late hit, then the play was reviewed and Dean was called for targeting.
With Dean out, sophomore C.J. McWilliams moved into the starting lineup.
So few plays
In the three games before Saturday’s, the Florida offense averaged only 52 plays a game. That trend continued against the Bulldogs.
The Gators ran only 26 plays in the first half. It was a combination of the offense failing to sustain drives and the defense failing to get MSU’s ball-control offense off the field.
The Gators did a much better job in the second half, driving the ball with some consistency on offense and getting some three-and-outs on defense.
The result was the Gators ran 40 plays in the second half and controlled the game on both sides of the ball, which led to the victory.
Crowd noise a factor
As it usually is, Davis Wade Stadium was very loud Saturday night. All that crowd noise seemed to have an impact, especially on the Florida offensive linemen, who had four false starts in the first half that helped stall drives.
Overall, the Gators were penalized six times in the half, while the Bulldogs were much cleaner, getting flagged twice for only 15 yards.
Homecoming for many
Much was made throughout the week about Dan Mullen’s return to Starkville. But he is only one of about 20 members of the Florida traveling party who returned to their former home this weekend, including athletic director Scott Stricklin and seven assistant coaches, including some of their wives, according to floridagators.com.
“Coach (Mullen) has a program and an identity and a culture he wants to get accomplished here, and when you have people who already understand what his vision is, I think it makes the transition easier and smoother,” said strength and conditioning coach Nick Savage, who spent the last four seasons at MSU with Mullen. “The biggest factor is just making sure everyone helps everyone out, crosses the T’s and dots the I’s. I think Coach excels because of his relentless effort toward excellence and having multiple familiar faces around, it just helps that overall vision.”
Savage met his wife in Starkville. So did assistant athletic director for football operations Jon Clark, who made the move from Gainesville to Starkville with Mullen before the 2009 season.
“When I moved to Starkville, it was me,” Clark said. “When I come back, it’s me, a wife and two kids. The second one being born after Dan took the job (at Florida).”
This, that and the other
The Gators have now scored in 377 consecutive games, which extends their NCAA record. … Mullen is the first former MSU coach to be on the opposing sideline as a head coach since 1934. The last man to do it was Stanley “Sid” Robinson, who coached the Bulldogs from 1917-19 before serving as the head coach at Mississippi College from 1920-23 and 1928-53. Robinson faced MSU eight times, going just 2-6. … Heading into Saturday’s game, MSU defensive end Montez Sweat and nose tackle Jeffery Simmons had played 17 games together with the Bulldogs. In those games, they combined for 42 tackles for losses. …. UF’s game captains Saturday night were junior linebacker David Reese and senior tight end R.J. Raymond. … After wearing blue pants in their win at Tennessee a week earlier, the Gators broke out their road orange pants Saturday night. … Junior safety Quincy Lenton is the only player on the Florida roster from the state of Mississippi. There are nine MSU Bulldogs from Florida, including freshman running back Robert Rivers, who attended Trinity Catholic in Ocala. …. There were thousands of State fans wearing “Dan Who?” T-shirt at Saturday’s game. There were numerous anti-Mullen signs outside the stadium, but their content is not suitable to run in a family newspaper.