Mullen victorious in his return to Starkville

Published 10:37 pm Saturday, September 29, 2018

STARKVILLE (AP) — When Florida needed a fourth-down stop late in the fourth quarter, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham made a bold call with a safety blitz. Coach Dan Mullen knew the risk of leaving that part of the field open and loved it anyway.

“I’ve learned one thing through the years,” the offensive-minded Mullen said with a grin. “Shut my mouth in that situation.”

A few moments later, Florida’s Donovan Stiner blasted through the line of scrimmage, sacked Nick Fitzgerald and put an exclamation point on the defense’s dominant performance in a 13-6 victory over No. 23 Mississippi State on Saturday night.

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Mullen won in his return to Starkville, guiding Florida to success in his first appearance at Davis Wade Stadium since leaving Mississippi State in November after nine mostly successful seasons.

Florida wasn’t great offensively, but it didn’t matter. The Gators (4-1, 2-1) broke through in the third quarter when Feleipe Franks threw a lateral to Kadarius Toney, who then threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Moral Stephens for a 10-6 lead.

Mullen said repeatedly throughout the week that Florida’s game in Starkville wasn’t about him, but Toney said it was still a motivating factor for the Gators.

“We had that chip on our shoulders,” Toney said. “We knew that we took what was theirs and they wanted it back.”

Mullen got a little choked up when talking about some of the conversations he had after the game with his former Mississippi State players. Mullen had a 69-46 record over nine seasons in Starkville.

“It’s hard to explain the coach-player relationship,” Mullen said. “It’s such an unbelievably tight relationship.”

After Toney’s touchdown pass, Florida slowly grinded toward the win. A 10-play, 36-yard drive in the fourth quarter led to a 21-yard field goal by Evan McPherson — giving the Gators a 13-6 lead — and the Mississippi State offense was never able to respond.

“We found a way to win a different style game,” Mullen said. “In this league you’re going to win all different styles of games. Last week we won with the big play. This week we won by grinding it out.”

Franks finished 22-of-31 passing for 219 yards. He didn’t throw a touchdown, but was the steady hand that guided crucial drives throughout the second half.

Mississippi State (3-2, 0-2) had its chances to win and led 6-3 at halftime. The Bulldogs looked like they were going to break the game open in the third quarter when Fitzgerald fired a perfect pass downfield to Osirus Mitchell, but the ball bounced awkwardly off his hands and fell to the turf.

The Bulldogs had one more chance late in the fourth quarter, but Fitzgerald was sacked by Stiner on fourth down. Mississippi State has scored just one touchdown over the past two games and had 202 total yards on Saturday. Fitzgerald was 11-of-26 passing for only 98 yards, added 32 rushing yards, and was sacked six times.

“We’re going to have to find a way to start scoring some points,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “Very frustrating.”

Mullen’s Gators took the field to plenty of cowbells and lots of boos before Saturday’s game, though the reception wasn’t much worse than most opposing teams get in Starkville.

Once the game started, highlights were limited. Both teams stuck to a conservative, ground-based offense that produced no first-half touchdowns and the Bulldogs took a 6-3 lead into halftime. It wouldn’t last.

Mississippi State — which will almost certainly fall out of the Top 25 after the loss — has dropped two straight.

“We’re just going to have to move on and get better,” defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons said.