GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It was homecoming for Florida, so Dan Mullen made himself right at home.
Less than two years after leaving Gainesville for Starkville, Mullen saw his Mississippi State team hang on for a 10-7 upset of the No. 22 Gators on Saturday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
It was not, however, the kind of shootout many thought it could be. Mullen brought his spread offense to MSU and has seen it blossom, but Saturday’s win was about a grind-it-out run game and suffocating defense.
It wasn’t over, though, until Florida kicker Chas Henry pushed a 42-yard field goal try wide right with 4 seconds left, his second miss of the game. That snapped a 21-game winning streak for Florida in homecoming games.
“I’ve said all week I’ve had success in this stadium,” said Mullen, who ran Florida’s offense for four seasons. “This is not an upset. Our team expected to win this football game.”
MSU (5-2, 2-2 SEC) has won four in a row for the first time since 1999, when the Bulldogs started 8-0, and have equaled last season’s win total. Florida (4-3, 2-3) lost its third straight, the first time that’s happened in the regular season since 1988.
It’s the first time that Mullen’s mentor, Urban Meyer, has lost three in a row in his nine-plus seasons as a head coach.
MSU, which hadn’t won in Gainesville since 1965 – a stretch of nine losses – imposed its tempo on the Gators on both sides of the ball. The Bulldogs won the time of possession battle (31:14 to 28:46) despite running 16 fewer plays.
“One of the things we want to do is control the tempo of the game and slow the game down a little bit and try to grind it out and make it an old school, knock-em-back football game instead of a track meet out there,” Mullen said.
Florida hung tough thanks to backup quarterback Trey Burton, who out of the wildcat formation rushed for 43 yards, ran the option effectively, and then added 37 yards receiving.
On the game’s final drive, Burton’s 13-yard catch on fourth-and-2 put the Gators at State’s 43-yard line with under a minute to go. But then MSU held as John Brantley threw three consecutive incompletions, and then Henry missed a chance to send it into overtime.
On the previous drive, Florida got it into the red zone before fumbling it away, with MSU linebacker K.J. Wright jumping on a ball coughed up by Jeff Demps.
“It’s a lack of execution,” Meyer said. “We’re not very good right now.”
Mullen played it very conservatively after Chris Relf threw three straight incompletions early in the second quarter. MSU ran the ball 24 consecutive times, with Relf finally flipping a shovel pass to Vick Ballard that lost 5 yards on third-and-goal from the Florida 17, and that was MSU’s only pass of the second half.
Sean Brauchle then missed a 40-yard field goal with 10:56 left in the game.
Still, the run game milked the clock. MSU finished with 212 rushing yards – 98 by Ballard, 82 by Relf.
Florida’s offense finally found a groove on its first possession of the second half. Thanks to a heavy dose of Burton and a 17-yard run by Demps, the Gators drove 80 yards on 13 plays, with Omarius Hines taking a Burton pitch for a 5-yard touchdown run at the 4:15 mark to cut MSU’s lead to 10-7.
Florida outgained MSU, 361-245.
Brauchle, who had two field goals blocked against Houston, drilled a 31-yarder to give MSU a 3-0 lead with 8:03 left in the first quarter.
Then Johnthan Banks, who had two interceptions against Florida last year, picked off Brantley at the MSU 25 on a fourth-and-5 play.
That set up an 11-play, 64-yard touchdown drive capped by Relf’s 6-yard run. It was 10-0 with 45 seconds left in the first, and it stayed that way until halftime thanks to a missed 38-yard field goal by Henry in the second quarter.
On the final drive of the half, linebacker Chris White had a sack and a tackle-for-loss of Brantley.
The boo birds were out early after Florida went three-and-out on its first possession. The Gators’ offensive coordinator, Steve Addazio, has been the subject of much ire among Florida’s fans, but it hasn’t helped that Demps was again limited by a foot injury.
After sitting out the previous game against LSU, Demps had five carries for 36 yards.
BRAD LOCKE / NEMS Daily Journal