Flying around like they were jacked up on a potent energy drink, Florida’s defensive players made Mississippi State dual-threat quarterback Nick Fitzgerald look like an immobile pocket passer in the decisive fourth quarter Saturday night in Starkville.
The Gators harassed him. They hit him. They sacked him. They made him appear helpless and hopeless.
And in the end, they buried him with a lightning-fast safety blitz that gave him zero time to react.
They were able to do this because the Gators were running on fresh legs.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had liberally substituted throughout the first three quarters, so when the game went into the fourth quarter, the Gators weren’t weary or running on heavy legs. They were energized and light on their feet.
They got after Fitzgerald and the MSU offense in a big, fast way.
“There’s no doubt (that was a major factor),” Grantham said. “If you go back and watch our get off and our pass rush in the fourth quarter (you’ll see). For example, (rush end) Jachai Polite and Cece Jefferson were basically rotating throughout the game.
“(Polite) was right at 30-something plays. We start that two-minute drive at the end of the game, he gets a sack. And then Cece actually comes in and gets another one. He got a penalty on him, but he ended up with a sack and some good pressure.
“Our guys are starting to see the value of when you rotate guys you can keep guys fresh. The value of rotating guys showed up and I think our guys are buying into it.”
Grantham said the defensive coaches played between 22 and 24 players on defense in the game. The Gators rotated players in and out throughout, including the fourth quarter, which the UF defense dominated.
In the quarter, the defense held the MSU offense to just three first downs (two by penalty) and only 11 total yards — 21 passing and minus-10 rushing.
Oh, yeah, and the Gators sacked Fitzgerald three times in the quarter, the same number of times they sacked him in the first quarter.
So, it appears the defense was as fresh in the fourth quarter as it was in the first.
Rotating multiple players to keep everyone fresh throughout the game, especially on defense, is part of Dan Mullen’s coaching philosophy.
“One thing that is different than what a lot of people do defensively, I like to rotate,” Mullen said. “Todd and our defensive staff understand, we like to rotate players.
“When you get to the fourth quarter of a game like last week, your defense is fresh. It’s fresh late in the game, the final drive of the game.”
The Gators played 11 different defensive linemen in the 13-6 win over Mississippi State. Conversely, MSU pretty much stayed with its starting line throughout the game.
In the fourth quarter, while the UF defense was shutting down the Bulldogs, the UF offense was sustaining drives and adding an important field goal.
“Our d-line turned it up,” nickel defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson said. “Mississippi State, they have a great defensive line. Watching them play on defense, they were good. They’re physical and fast up front, but not having depth can really wear you down.
“Having depth on our sideline , our d-line was constantly rolling, having different guys coming in. Jachai was turning it up in the fourth quarter, Cece was fresh. (Tackle) T.J. Slaton was fresh. (Tackle) Kyree Campbell and those guys. When their number was called, they just went and made plays. They weren’t too tired and weren’t exhausted from anything.”
One potential problem with playing so many players is that some, especially the better ones, want to play as many plays as they can. They don’t want to come out.
“I think everyone is buying in to what we’re trying to do,” Mullen said. “Guys can be like, ‘I don’t like coming off the field. I want to stay on the field. I want to do this.’ But what you see is when you get to the fourth quarter, your defense is fresh.
“The players are understanding that and starting to buy into it.”
It’s easier to buy in when you’re getting results. And that’s what the Gators are doing, staying fresh and playing fast to the finish.
Who: No. 5 LSU (5-0, 2-0 SEC) vs. No. 22 Florida (4-1, 2-1)
When: 3:30 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850