Florida football vs. Mississippi State score, takeaways: Gators drill No. 23 Bulldogs in complete effort

By Adam Silverstein
September 30, 2018
Florida football vs. Mississippi State score, takeaways: Gators drill No. 23 Bulldogs in complete effort

Image Credit: @GatorsFB on Twitter

In one of the most complete and thorough performances that Florida Gators football has put together in years, the program went on the road for the second straight week and defeated another Southeastern Conference opponent as it pulled out a hard-fought 13-6 victory over the No. 23 Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis-Wade Stadium in Starkville, Mississippi. Florida (4-1, 2-1 SEC) used defense and game management to give head coach Dan Mullen a victory over his former team in a raucous environment that was billed as an unwinnable atmosphere for UF.

The Gators had other ideas. Over four quarters on Saturday night, Florida proved that it not only had the temperament to deal with a difficult crowd for the second straight week but the poise to stay within itself, fight against adversity and still come out on top with the biggest win of the young Mullen era. Let’s explore some key takeaways from the Gators’ victory.

1. Defense is finding itself: The defensive performance against now-ranked Kentucky a few weeks ago left a lot to be desired, but there is little question that Florida is steadily improving under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The Gators swarmed on Saturday, creating six sacks on the evening while collapsing the pocket on Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who was held without a touchdown on 11-of-26 passing for 98 yards. That is particularly astounding because freshman defensive back Trey Dean, who sees extensive action in UF’s thin secondary, was ejected moments into the game on a mind-boggling targeting call. Mississippi State as a whole averaged just 3.5 yards per play and picked up 202 yards on the game. Florida outgained its hosts by 155 yards.

Junior defensive end Jachai Polite was particularly impressive with two sacks, while junior linebacker Vosean Joseph and junior DB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson swarmed all night with seven tackles each. Of course, it was sophomore DB Donvoan Stiner‘s game-ending kill shot sack on fourth down that served as a paradigm of the Gators’ defensive performance.

“Go get it and attack,” Mullen said of the safety blitz call. Todd and I have been through it before. I’ve done it. We’ve played coverage and made plays. We’ve blitzed and not made plays. He’s got to get the feel of ‘let’s go after them.’ I’ve learned one thing through the years — to shut my mouth in that situation. I’m just going to shut my mouth. Todd, I’m here if you need me. He’s the one that watched all the film and put the game plan together and blitz package together. I just need to sit there quietly and let him go.”

2. Be fair to Franks: This is not the first time it has been written in this space, but it is time to give redshirt sophomore QB Feleipe Franks some credit. Whether you want to throw your full support behind him or not, it is clear he has improved under Mullen if only because he has learned to manage the game better, make key throws when it counts and avoid costly mistakes. Consider that Franks threw 31 passes on Saturday compared to there being 26 called runs for playmakers, and that should tell you all you need to know about Mullen’s comfort in his quarterback.

That’s not to say Franks is chucking it all over the field and driving up the score, but he did complete 22 passes for 219 yards with his only true miscue being a tip-drill interception. Franks fit multiple balls into tight windows, converted a number of third downs through the air and moved around the pocket well. Twelve different players caught passes from Franks on the evening and seven had at least two targets. There was not a single three-and-out series on the evening for the offense. Franks may not on his way to being an All-SEC performer, but considering what Mullen has already accomplished with him after a few months, it should be interesting to see what Franks looks like as his career continues in orange and blue.

“I thought he made some really good decisions, good checks and good throws down the field,” said Mullen of Franks. “He had a pick on a tipped ball, which was kind of too bad. He didn’t throw a touchdown pass — that’s too bad. [He was] 22 [of] 31 and 219 [yards]. That’s a pretty solid day. [He came] in against that defense, and this is one of the best and deepest defenses in the country. To come in here and execute the plan the way he was able to, I thought he did a very good job.”

3. Dan with a plan: Much of the talk before the game was about how the Bulldogs were drooling at the opportunity to get revenge on Mullen for … I guess … building their program up from nothing and then leaving after a significant period of time to take a better job. OK, whatever. In actuality, as was also written in this space, Mullen’s familiarity with the Mississippi State personnel is what really made the difference on Saturday night. Despite being in numerous situations where there were clearly difficult decisions to make, Mullen seemingly always made the right ones, choosing to rely on his defense and clock-chewing offense to reduce MSU’s possessions and maintain Florida’s advantage.

The lone touchdown of the game came on a perfectly designed double throw with sophomore wide receiver Kadarius Toney finding redshirt senior tight end Moral Stephens in the corner of the end zone for a 20-yard score. “They’re a really aggressive defense with driving the ball. We got the ball in the red zone, which would happen when we’d been running some quick screens. All of a sudden, they jump up on the quick screens and the double pass is open,” explained Mullen.

Other than that, Mullen kept the trickeration to a couple of direct snaps and allowed his running backs to grind out serious yardage. Redshirt senior running back Jordan Scarlett (10 carries, 21 yards) struggled most of the night, so Mullen went to junior Lamical Perirne (10 carries, 55 yards) and called in freshman Dameon Pierce (four carries, 30 yards) for some late work to utilize his fresh legs. The points were not there for the Gators on Saturday, but Mullen put Florida in the position to win at nearly every chance presented to him.

For his efforts, he got a Gatorade shower after the game. “I really wasn’t [expecting it’, but I do appreciate our players. It shows that the guys are starting to believe and buy in to what we’re trying to build here because when you do that,” he said. “I’ll be honest, were tough on them, and it shows that there’s a love and respect for each other in that locker room. I’m not going to get any softer on them. I’m just going to get tougher but I think it shows how the team has come together.”

4. The Gators are now battle tested: There are massive differences between Davis Wade Stadium and Neyland Stadium, but both are difficult road environments for any team to survive in. Whereas Tennessee’s house boasts over 100,000 fans, the cowbells wielded by Mississippi State fans make it difficult to concentrate. As such, Florida had false starts on three of its first six plays, though the Gators were able to compose themselves later. The bad news is that most of UF’s penalties from there on out were unforced errors that aided MSU in continuing drives that would have otherwide ended. Still, Saturday marked the first time since 2012 that the Gators won back-to-back SEC road games after going 0-5 in prior opportunities. That’s something to write home about and should not be lost in this victory.

“This is one of the toughest environments in college football to come in to. [It was] a very emotional night against one of the most talented teams out there,” said Mullen. “I think all week I’ve been harping on our guys to stick with it and continue to improve from one week to the next in practice, and it’ll show on Saturday in our preparation. I think our guys are really starting to buy into that we need to prepare the right way. If we do that, then your performance is going to start to improve. … We came in here, and we found a way to win a different style game. In our program, in this league, you’re going to win all different styles of games. Last week, we won by the big play. This week, we won by grinding it out.”

Odds and ends: Saturday was the fourth time in the last eight seasons that Florida earned a win against a top 25 opponent on the road … the Gators won a game scoring 14 points or fewer for the fifth time in the last five seasons … Florida improved to 34-19-2 all-time against Mississippi State, 5-7 in Starkville and 4-3 in the last seven meetings … the Gators did not force a turnover on Saturday despite entering the game No. 1 nationally in that category … Florida improved to 23-7 against unranked opponents since 2015, 188-23 since 1990 … UF has scored in 376 consecutive games, an NCAA record


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