’18 win over LSU a defining moment in Mullen era
When LSU last visited The Swamp in 2018, Florida running back Nay’Quan Wright was one of several top recruits in attendance for the Gators' biggest home game of the year.
At the time, the Gators had a 4-1 record and top-25 ranking for the first time since their Week 2 loss to Kentucky. The Tigers were the nation’s No. 5 team and had won in Gainesville the previous season after the 2016 game was postponed and moved to Baton Rouge due to Hurricane Matthew.
LSU had ruined Florida’s 2017 homecoming and Tom Petty tribute with its fourth win in five years in the rivalry — and coach Jim McElwain was fired two games later — but Dan Mullen would give Gator Nation revenge in his first season as head coach.
UF upset the undefeated Tigers in 2018 with a 27-19 victory. Wright was in the South End Zone bleachers when defensive back Brad Stewart, a New Orleans native, made the game-winning pick-six against LSU quarterback Joe Burrow — the first interception of his collegiate career.
“I was sitting right in the recruiting section. He ran right into us, actually. It was crazy,” Wright recalled. “He just broke on the ball and made a huge play.
“I’ll probably say that was the loudest that I’ve been in The Swamp. … I couldn’t even hear my neighbor. I couldn’t hear nobody.”
UF offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who recruited Wright from Miami, was up in the coaches’ box on Stewart’s pick-six.
He could still hear the crowd on the play, which remains one of the defining moments of the Mullen era.
“Unbelievable environment,” Johnson said. “I don't know that I've ever heard a place as loud as when Brad made that interception to kind of seal it, other than maybe (Lamical) Perine's run against Auburn — maybe. It was a great atmosphere in The Swamp.”
It also marked the first signature win for Mullen, who led the Gators to a 10-3 record in 2018 after they went 4-7 the year before. The upset over LSU was a turning point early on in his tenure.
“I think it was huge,” Mullen said. “We played a really tough, physical game, which it usually is against LSU. Always a battle right down to the end. And our guys, I think that day, found a way to win. We really came together as a team. We had critical defensive stops when we needed to, big offensive drives when we needed to in the course of the game.
“Made a lot of big plays that day. I think any time you do that, that can be a huge boost for the confidence of the guys, especially in our first year here in the program. It was a big boost for our guys trying to believe and understand what we were trying to accomplish and what we would be able to do in the future.”
Florida finished Mullen’s first season ranked No. 6 in the Coaches Poll. In his first full recruiting cycle, he and his staff signed a consensus top-10 class on the heels of a New Year's Six Bowl victory over Michigan.
Wright was one of those signees, and the LSU game in 2018 showed him and others that the Gators were a team on the rise.
“I think it gave some guys confidence that Florida is in it,” Wright said. “Due to the past year, it didn’t go how those guys planned it. But it just let us know that Florida is in it. And like you see, two years later, Florida’s in the SEC championship.”
That victory over the Tigers — the first of four wins against top-10 teams under Mullen — was a sign of things to come. The most recent came this season vs. then-No. 5 Georgia, which put the Gators on the path to Atlanta.
They clinched the SEC East last Saturday, setting the stage for a match-up with top-ranked Alabama in the conference title game Dec. 19 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Before crossing that bridge, however, Florida will face the defending SEC champs Saturday night.
“Our goal is to compete for championships and we're doing that this year,” Mullen said. “The last two years we've had top-ten finishes and won two New Year's Six Bowl games, so that's where (the program) is.
“And if I remember back to that (’18 LSU game), that was probably the loudest, most electric the stadium was that season for sure. And it kind of reminded me of what it was back in the national championship years. … That is what we expect. I love playing for championships.”
Who: LSU (3-5) vs. No. 6 Florida (8-1)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850