Florida battles, finds a way to get a rare win in Starkville

STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen got to see some old friends, but the atmosphere was hardly cordial, and the result didn’t leave him with any warm fuzzies.
Facing his old employer, Mullen saw two fourth-quarter miscues doom Mississippi State’s upset bid, as No. 2 Florida, the defending national champion and ranked first in the BCS standings, took a 29-19 win in front of a record crowd of 57,178 at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.
Mullen was Florida’s offensive coordinator for four seasons before being hired by State last December. He just didn’t have enough firepower against his mentor, Urban Meyer.
It was Florida’s first win in Starkville since 1985, having lost four in a row here coming in.
It was the fourth home loss for MSU (3-5, 1-3 SEC) decided by 11 points or less this season.
“It’s a play here or there we’ve got to make,” Mullen said.
The teams were jawing at each other prior to kickoff, and that set the tone for the game.
The turning point came when Mullen called for a fake punt at MSU’s own 26-yard line with Florida (7-0, 5-0) leading 16-13. Robert Elliott slipped down at the 22, and Florida made it a 22-13 game on Chris Rainey’s 8-yard touchdown run with 9 minutes, 8 seconds left in the game.
“It wasn’t like we were churning up and down the field on offense,” Mullen said. “It was a key point in the game, I thought we needed a play. They’d been coming after us on the punt team, I thought we’d get it.”
Mullen said Meyer told him after the game that he didn’t see the fake coming.

Too little, too late
Florida then added a 23-yard interception return for touchdown by linebacker Devin Doe. Free safety Johnthan Banks had a 20-yard interception return for MSU later on, but it was too late by then.
Florida outgained MSU 376 to 237. The Bulldogs had 92 yards on the ground, and senior tailback Anthony Dixon’s string of five consecutive 100-yard games was snapped – he had 53 on 15 carries. He had 20 yards at halftime.
“When you don’t get in a rhythm (early), it can throw you off all night,” Mullen said of the running game.
MSU quarterback Tyson Lee was 15 of 23 passing for 145 yards with three interceptions.
“You’re quarterback’s going to have to make plays for you to win close games in the fourth quarter,” Mullen said.
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, who’s very close to Mullen, was 12 of 22 for 127 yards and two picks, and he rushed for 88 yards and a TD. Rainey had 90 yards and a touchdown rushing.

Banks steps up
Davis Wade was a rockin’ place from the get-go, and it got perhaps as loud as it’s ever been when Banks, a freshman from tiny East Webster High, intercepted a Tebow pass two yards behind the goal line and race the other way for what was officially a 100-yard touchdown with 27 seconds left in the first half.
What could have been a 20-3 Florida lead was just 13-10 heading into halftime. It was the third trip inside MSU’s 10-yard line in the half, with the other two resulting in Caleb Sturgis field goals.
MSU tied it at 13-13 on Derek DePasquale’s 31-yard field goal at the 9:32 mark of the third quarter. Florida answered with a 27-yarder by Sturgis.
“I was really proud of our kids, what they did, how they fought, how they battled,” Mullen said.
In the first quarter, Tebow couldn’t punch it in on two runs from the 1-yard line, with Sean Ferguson dropping him for a 3-yard loss on third down. Sturgis kicked a 20-yard field goal to tie it at 3-3.
Next time Florida had the ball, though, Tebow came through. He converted on a fourth-and-2 from MSU’s 35 and then ripped off a 26-yard TD run.
It was 10-3 Gators at the 13:16 mark of the second quarter.
Florida tried to mute the buzz early with an A.J. Jones interception on MSU’s opening drive, but Sturgis missed a 37-yard field goal try.
MSU’s DePasquale was on target on the ensuing drive, nailing a career-long 43-yard field goal to put the Bulldogs ahead 3-0 at the 9:05 mark.

Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or brad.locke@djournal.com.

Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal