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 email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.