Whitley: Mullen has a whole new challenge after Kentucky collapse

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Florida Emory Jones (5) runs the ball upfield during the second half Saturday against Kentucky in Lexington, Ky.

The most fitting moment of Florida’s night came when the referee’s microphone gave out in the third quarter. The battery must have died from overuse.

We had to read the ref’s lips as he announced the 10th penalty on the Gators. Or was it the 11th? They all sort of blurred into one inexplicably frustrating evening for Florida.

Kentucky 20, Mistakes 15, Florida 13.

Turn out the lights, the season’s over.

Technically, it’s not. There’s about three months left until a bowl game, which won’t be a New Year’s Six bowl.

Another one would have made it four straight under Dan Mullen. As hard as that was, now he's in for his biggest challenge since moving back to Gainesville.

Mullen will have to motivate a team that has lost its prime motivations. It didn't just lose them. It squandered them against the Wildcats.

"They’re a pretty physical group, but we out-rushed them,” Mullen said. “We out-passed them, we out-total-gained them, led the time of possession, we were better on third downs.”

That made for a game the Gators could have won, but deserved to lose. The inexcusable sloppiness is triggering. If you go by social media reaction (which you never should), Mullen should be applying for work this morning at Burger King.

That’s crazy talk. Just a week ago, Mullen was being hailed as the best play-caller in the land. One bad game doesn’t change that.

The thing is, Saturday wasn’t the usual kind of loss. It felt like a pivot point for both programs.

It validated Kentucky as the SEC’s real up-and-comer. After eons of wandering the wilderness, Mark Stoops’ teams have now split the past four games against the Gators.

We can poke fun at Mullen for being the first UF coach to lose twice to the Wildcats since Doug Dickey. But the Zooks and Mushcamps and McElwains could pick on the old Kentucky.

The new Kentucky is undeniably in the second tier of SEC East teams. That semi-rarefied air feels great to Wildcats fans.

Florida fans are used to it. Heck, they’re tired of it.

They want more. They’re dying to beat Georgia and regularly challenge for a national championship. Saturday night was the kind of performance that makes you wonder if the program is leveling off into the Not Quite Good Enough category.

The questions going into the season were primarily about the defense and Emory Jones. The defense is playing pretty well, especially considering three of its best players (Ventrell Miller, Jaydon Hill and Kaiir Elam) are out with injuries.

Only Elam will return this year. But even without him, the defense held Kentucky to one big-play TD and one short scoring drive.

As for Jones, he was poised and accurate in his first real road test. Florida’s biggest issues weren’t one anyone saw coming.

Mullen was uncharacteristically conservative, which made some sense. Kentucky had been a turnover machine. Playing it safe and letting the Wildcats self-destruct made some sense.

Kentucky committed only one turnover, but that seemed as if it would be enough. Florida got the ball at the Wildcats’ 31-yard line. It had a 10-7 lead midway through the third quarter. A touchdown might have iced it.

Instead, a first down was wiped out by a holding penalty. Jace Christmann ended up attempting a 48-yard field goal. It was blocked and returned 76 yards for a TD.

“We just let guys run clean up the middle of the field,” Mullen said.

One mistake can be deadly in close games. It’s a minor miracle Florida was in the game with 15 penalties.

Eight false starts were the real killer. Six of them came on third or fourth downs, crucial plays that short-circuited drives and scoring possibilities.

Some of the problems were due to the raucous crowd, but Kroger Stadium isn’t The Swamp. For whatever reason, the offense wasn’t prepared for the pitfalls of Lexington.

“We’ve got to do better,” Mullen said of the penalties. “You can’t do that. That’s a lack of mental toughness.”

That’s something the Gators are really going to need. The past few years, they’ve had consequential games until the season's ended.

Now every game is consequential in a different way. Georgia’s looking invincible, but a four-loss season would really make you wonder where the program is headed.

In other words, it’s time for Mullen's Gators to strive for some new goals. Not committing enough penalties to drain the ref’s microphone would be a good place to start.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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