STARKVILLE, Miss. — In the walkway that leads from the field to their locker room, the Gators were still hitting.
As they left the playing surface dragging another road victory behind them, players bounced off each other as sweat ricocheted from one smiling face to another.
Dameon Pierce smacked into Lamical Perine and then was clobbered from behind by Fred Johnson.
Smack, pow, smash.
All the way to as much joyful noise they could muster behind closed glass doors.
It was like they didn’t want to stop hitting.
Team Softie three weeks ago, given up for dead after Kentucky, worthless and weak. Wasn’t that the narrative two weeks into the season?
So how do we explain Saturday night?
“The more physical team won,” said linebacker Vosean Joseph. “We just had to go play our game. We knew we were the better defense.”
On this night, with a white-out disguising the venom this fan base was feeling for its former coach, Florida shut up the clanking cowbells by being tougher than the other team.
Tougher — after a rough start — mentally.
“We just had to be more physical,” said Florida coach Dan Mullen. “We had to attack.”
That included the last play that mattered, a safety blitz with the game on the line. When Nick Fitzgerald dropped back on fourth-and-10, all he could see was the No. 13 of sophomore Donovan Stiner bearing down on him.
“I was able to relax,” said quarterback Feleipe Franks on Stiner’s sack. “I was tensed up before that play.”
Who wasn’t? It was a gutsy call in a game full of them.
“Let’s go after him,” Mullen said later. “Todd (Grantham) and I have been through these things before. I’ve learned one thing — to shut my mouth in that situation.”
The sack basically ended it and set off a wild celebration. Sometimes, the kind of victory Florida pulled off last night leads to the biggest smiles. This was old-school SEC football in a new world environment right down to the way-too-loud PA system.
It was a grind. Florida ground harder.
“It’s the mindset these guys have to have,” Mullen said. “They’ve started to buy in the last two weeks. I think they’re learning.”
You get the feeling that last year’s team was crippled by losses and this year’s team took the Kentucky loss personally.
To go on the road and win twice in a row, hey, we may have snubbed our noses at the win over Tennessee, but this one came against a Top 25 team that wanted to beat Mullen more than anything. These fans didn’t just want to win, they wanted to win by a lot.
But you can’t win by a lot if you don’t score a lot. And even in a strange game where Florida had only three first-half possessions and threw more wide receiver screens than they have since the Ed Zaunbrecher days, the defense simply was too good.
“This was big for us, big for our players, big for our confidence,” Franks said.
And perhaps, big for the coaches to have more confidence in the players they inherited. Who blitzes the safety like they did with the game on the line?
“It was like he was shot out of a cannon,” said receiver Kadarius Toney, watching from the sideline.
It was Toney who threw the game’s only touchdown pass on a play Florida has had in its arsenal since the start of training camp.
But Mullen didn’t bring it out on this night because he was in his old stomping grounds where there were vulgar signs on the streets and derisive chants in the stadium.
Had nothing to do with it.
Naw, he brought it out because Florida needed something special to get into the end zone in a game where points were precious.
Because for all of the decorations that came with this game, it was still about the basic bottom line of every football game.
You can look at it as not being the kind of non-offensive game Florida brought Mullen to Gainesville to win. He’d tell you the opposite.
“I want to win because I want to win,” he said.
The team on the other sideline was just a prop for what Mullen is trying to get through to his players, to be better every week, to play harder every week. To win.
Instead of this being the Mullen Bowl, he worked hard not to make it about a coach coming home. That, he said, would have nothing to do with the outcome.
So when a couple of the older players came to him during pre-game meal and suggested they walk out with their coach arm-in-arm, he bristled.
“Why? We don’t do that,” he said. “Just come out and play better than you did last week. They wanted to show that they had my back. But I never wanted it to be about me. I didn’t bring it up all week.”
He didn’t have to.
But you know what?
It wasn’t about Dan Mullen,
This game was about Dan Mullen’s team.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
You have nearly the entire MSU coaching staff of last year – on the other sideline. That was a significant factor in the outcome of this game.
Pat, you write really well. You are an icon for me. We all disagree alot about what’s good for our Gators but there is no denying that you understand our teams. I’m 42 and from Jacksonville and have read your stuff for my entire life. I really appreciate your perspective man. I also believe Kentucky can win the east and that the future is still bright for our Gators. Glass half full. Go Gators
Jon B. – we need Georgia and probably one other team to beat Kentucky and for us to win the rest and we will be the SEC East Champions again. It is not far fetched to think that as a possibility. Our defense needs to play every game like it did in the second half of this last game and we could compete with anyone. GO GATORS!!!
Is all good. We have a top 5 team coming to the swamp this week. This will be an awesome measuring game to see how far our Gators have yet to go. This was an all around good game!! Reminding of the 2006 season, we didnt blow out teams yet we found a way to win. Frank’s kept his cool, didn’t get flustered and made good choices. He wasn’t perfect, nobody is. I decided it’s better to watch for developing athletes and see how they grow game to game. Forget the wind and losses for a season so CDM can school these guys into a championship team. Goooooooo GATORS!!!!!!
This team has now proven they have made a decision to be tougher men and not let the other guys push them around. Woo hoo for Dan Mullen coaching! The plan I outlined three weeks ago is coming up roses:
(1) Start over with the second CSU game…CHECK
(2) Become tougher men, improved as a team and beat UT at Knoxville…CHECK
(3) Now the big step up, LSU…???
You are right as rain, DeWayne….excellent observation. They made a DECISION to be tougher men. That showed the character, the gumption if you will, that I think was dormant all along but they didn’t really know they had. I wasn’t ever really worried before about their potential to out-physical other teams…..I was worried about their mental toughness to be able to make the decision you just articulated.
Well said. Coaching
Well said Pat. Really when it comes down to it, I too just want us to win. The D played a damn good game and the offense hung in there. Great job. Onward.
MSU fans might have issue with Dan but obvious from after game interaction with his former players and staff there was a lot of love. And we got us a ball coach. Go Gators!
Florida beat msu. They should have won and they did. The newspaper saying they would lose just sets up articles about an exciting upset….part of the business if you don’t like it. The writers are good. Just the way of being a gator because these players etc are just a bigger deal than most other programs
It was more than the papers, even Vegas had the Gators losing, it was all about MSU being ranked which I said all week they shouldnt have been! They had 3 wins over nobody and a big loss to UK. It happens every year, some teams are misperceived and improperly ranked, MSU was one of them. the whole football world had it wrong. I was one on here all week saying that it was wrong, that the Gators would win and I made over 3 grand because of that realization. I found another one that the football world had wrong and that was La lafayette v N.Texas and I made a bunch on that one too. Read an article on yahoo last night, Overanked/Underanked and MUS was on there just confirming what Ive been saying. Now UF is overanked because they shouldnt be ranked. They are continuing their fallacy of overanking MSU by now overanking UF because they beat them!
In other words if msu had beaten Florida it would have made their season. Same for every team on our schedule. Georgia knows they can’t beat Alabama so the Gators will be their ‘it game”. Same for lsu. Then the next one.
I think Mullen has to use his productive players more like toney, Swain, Clev, Grimes and P&P in the backfield…sit Scarlett…
Scarlett runs with his pad level too high and thats why he’s not being successful consistently like Perrine who runs with his pad level very low! Either train him to do it right in practice or change the starter and give Pierce more carries.
Legit — I agree but don’t forget Damien Pierce and Toney.
Oh yeah you mentioned them – my bad. What has happened to Van Jefferson and Dre Massey?