Mississippi State's Mullen returns to Florida, faces reeling Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen’s final four games at the Swamp were special.

With Mullen calling plays, and quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Percy Harvin executing them, Florida scored 240 points in wins against LSU, Kentucky, South Carolina and The Citadel in 2008. It was the most points over a four-game home stretch in school history.

The Gators scored in every quarter and were successful 21 of 23 times in the red zone. There were few groans, even fewer boos.

Oh, how things have changed in Gainesville.

When Mullen returns on Saturday night for the first time since taking the head coaching job at Mississippi State, there will be some who would love to have him back on Florida’s sideline.

The 22nd-ranked Gators (4-2, 2-2 SEC) have hit a rough patch, losing consecutive games to Alabama and LSU and getting jeered at home.

The problems are evident. Quarterback John Brantley doesn’t fit the spread option, causing problems near the goal line. The offensive line, which was considered the team’s strength, has been average. Running back Jeff Demps’ foot injury turned out to be a major setback, leaving the offense with no home-run threats.

Throw in the defense’s inconsistent pass rush, missed tackles and blown coverages, and the Gators have looked out of whack on both sides of the ball.

“Obviously, everybody has to get better,” center Mike Pouncey said. “We just have to stay together as a team and keep fighting because it ain’t over yet. To point fingers at position groups just ain’t right. It’s a team effort and we’re all in here with one goal, and that’s to get back here to Atlanta.”

Florida’s main goal is still in reach. In fact, the Gators control their destiny in the East Division, needing only to beat the Bulldogs (4-2, 1-2), Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina to earn a third consecutive trip to the conference title game.

“Some things don’t fall the way you want to, but the good thing is we still have that spark of light at the end of the tunnel,” linebacker Brandon Hicks said. “That’s something we’re all taking pride in.”

Getting things turned around won’t be easy, especially against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the league in total defense and have allowed just 17.5 points a game.

Although the defense has just 10 sacks, it employs steady blitzes from all directions — the kind of unpredictable scheme that has given Brantley trouble in recent weeks. Plus, the junior is playing with injured ribs, a sprained thumb and a sore shoulder.

If that doesn’t give the Bulldogs hope, three straight wins over Georgia, Alcorn State and Houston has given them confidence they can snap a 16-game losing streak in Gainesville.

“These are games that we’re going to have to start winning if we’re going to get to the level we want to get to,” Mullen said.

Mullen spent four years running Meyer’s offense and helped the Gators win two national championships. Although criticized at times, he never went through what his successor, Steve Addazio, is dealing with these days.

Addazio’s play-calling was booed repeatedly against LSU, even on the go-ahead drive late in the game. There were several “Fire Steve Addazio” signs in the stands, and www.firesteveaddazio.com is up and running.

“Hey, this is not a sport for the thin-skinned, now,” Addazio said. “It’s a tough business and I think we’ve talked about this before here. You came here for a reason. There are high expectations. That’s why you’re here. That’s what it’s all about. You better embrace that. If you don’t embrace that, then you are at the wrong place.”

Meyer defended Addazio this week, saying “an offense minus big plays is tough in this day and age and real difficult.”

The Gators aren’t sure how to fix it, either.

Demps, if healthy, and speedy receiver Andre Debose might make a difference. If not, there could be more boos for the home team.

There probably won’t be any for Mullen, especially if fans remember his last four games at the Swamp.

“Now that I’m gone,” he said, “the Florida fans like me more than when I was there, that’s for sure.”

Mark Long/The Associated Press