Whitley: Gators it half-right

David Whitley
Gator Sports
Florida quarterback Emory Jones (5) throws a pass to running back Dameon Pierce for a touchdown during the third quarter Saturday against Vanderbilt at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Jones had a career-high four touchdowns passes.

Dan Mullen would have made a fine courtroom witness Saturday. When asked a direct question, he gave a direct answer.

This particular cross-examination was conducted by SEC Network sideline reporter Taylor Davis as Mullen was heading off the field at halftime.

What was your message to your quarterbacks?

“Yeah,” Mullen said. “Play better.”

Assess your team’s first-half defense.

“Awful,” Mullen said.

Truer football words have rarely been spoken. After the Kentucky downer, the message out of Gators camp all week had been simple.

We’re going to do better. Enough with the sloppy tackling, execution and penalties. There will be no letdown against Vanderbilt. We’ll be hyper-focused and ready to start the reclamation project.

When it was over, that message had been delivered. The problem is it took 30 perplexing minutes to be delivered to an anxious Gator Nation.

That was apparent by the way Mullen’s four-word interview quickly went viral.

“I wasn’t trying to be mean,” he said. “That was what came to my head when she asked the question.”

About 86,000 witnesses at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium would have attested to the same thing, and many might have used a load of four-letter words. They eventually went home happy, relishing Emory Jones’s four-TD day and that goose egg on the scoreboard.

42-0 always looks good on the scoreboard. It alludes to a tidy domination, but this was one of the strangest butt-kickings in the 99 years UF has been celebrating Homecoming.

It featured a 28-yard run by a punter, an interception by a 308-pound lineman and zero points out of a team Florida could barely get the ball away from for the first 30 minutes.

That would have been Vanderbilt. Yes, the same Vandy that had beaten UF once in 33 years. The same Vandy that has now been outscored 106-0 in two SEC games. The same Vandy that hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team since before the pandemic.

That Vandy controlled the ball almost 20 minutes of the first half and ran 49 plays to Florida’s’ 31. But three drives ended in two missed field goals and a short TD pass on fourth down that was reversed on replay.

“In the first half, I thought we did some things well and we did some things poorly,” Mullen said. “But overall, it’s on me and the coaching staff.”

The bad thing – and please don’t stop if you’ve read this before – were penalties, confusion getting plays off and missed tackles. All bugaboos UF vowed to clean up after Kentucky.

Some things the Gators did well? Big plays. There haven’t been a lot of them this season as Florida turned into a ground-and-pound offense with short passes sprinkled in. As good as the running game has been, it’s not good enough to overcome the kind of stacked defensive front Georgia will throw at it.

The Gators need to show some deep passing prowess, and Jones came out winging. That led to two TDs on the first two drives, then Florida’s defense forgot the basics of tackling.

Players were getting to ball carriers, but they weren’t wrapping up. Mullen called the defense “awful” on TV, and probably much worse in the locker room.

“He just told us in the first half, even though they didn’t score any points, it wasn’t our brand of ball,” Rashad Torrence said.

If the Gators could bottle and brand the first seven minutes of the second half, they’d be a playoff favorite. They scored three TDs, an explosion sparked by that 26-yard run on a fake punt by Jeremy Crawshaw.

The defense came to life, though remember, it did so against Vanderbilt. Jones came into the game averaging 6.5 yards per completion. He averaged 19.5 on 14 completions Saturday, though he missed a couple of throws in the first half that could have gone for scores. Mullen was not pleased.

“He got on me about those plays,” Jones said, “but I mean, I moved on. I learned from those mistakes.”

All that made for a happy Homecoming, but it didn’t quite live up to the message Florida was preaching all week. Mullen says that is on him and his staff. They could get away with it against Vandy.

Next week in Baton Rouge?

“I love playing big games,” Mullen said. “That’s a big game.”

He’ll be preaching the same message:

Get better.

And don’t wait until the second half to do it.

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