STARKVILLE, Miss. – The game ball could very well be cut in half, but who wants to ruin such a keepsake? And is this ever a keepsake, one to be cherished forever.
So in a celebratory locker room in which Florida players hoisted their head coach on their shoulders, Dan Mullen handed the pigskin to the only person wearing Gators blue with a deeper connection to Saturday’s opponent than his. “Pretty special,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin says, the ball tucked under his right arm. A 13–6 win over Mississippi State just an hour old, Stricklin stood outside of the locker room, all smiles as he looked over a stadium he helped expand, a school he attended and an athletic department he presided over for six years. “Mixed emotions. I wanted Florida to win. I’m happy for Florida but”—here he gestured across Scott Field to the home locker room—“I’m disappointed for those guys.”
Mississippi State rudely welcomed Mullen back with a smattering of boos and some salty signs, but the 46-year old had something better in store. He and the Gators came into a cowbell-clanging environment, scored on a trick play, went for it on a fourth down and stunned the touchdown-favorite Bulldogs in a rousing win for one coach (Mullen, of course) and a shocking blow for another (Mullen replacement Joe Moorhead).
This is a story about the Gators, who have climbed out of the grave Kentucky put them in three weeks ago to move to 4–1. They’ve won back-to-back SEC road games, and they’re roaring into a home meeting with top-five LSU next week. But the Bulldogs deserve some time. The SEC West dark horse favorites, with a senior quarterback and nasty front seven, are now in a grave themselves, buried beneath a pile of offensive inadequacies. The booing of Mullen paled in comparison to the volley of jeers fans at Davis Wade Stadium sent toward Nick Fitzgerald and Mississippi State’s offense.
Combine the 202 yards of offense Saturday with the 201 at Kentucky last week and you get a mess that hasn’t been seen in Starkville since Mullen’s third season in 2011 (131 against Alabama, 211 against Arkansas). Moorhead, the offensive whiz who led Penn State’s offensive resurgence in 2016 and ’17, said he’s never seen one of his offensive units sputter so much. One Mississippi State player, so frustrated with the unit, shot inquiring reporters a “next question” during interviews, according to The Clarion-Ledger.
“I feel for them,” Mullen said across Scott Field in a news conference situation above a celebratory locker room. This wasn’t just any old SEC road victory for the Gators and their coach. They dumped ice water on Mullen at the final buzzer, and defensive linemen lifted him on their shoulders during a wild locker room scene. Security guards couldn’t get the locker room doors closed quick enough, and peering reporters could see the madness. “It was crazy. I ain’t going to lie,” said speedy receiver Kadarius Toney.
Mullen got emotional late in his 20-minute news conference with reporters, choking up at times as he described beating a “team of guys you love” and recalling the difficulty of telling the Bulldogs goodbye last November. He coached this program to a record eight straight bowls, enlivened a cowbell-toting fan base and won more games than all but one other Mississippi State coach. (Jackie Sherrill has six more victories, and guess who was honored in an on-field first-quarter ceremony?)
Mullen said he tried to block out everything around him: those cowbells he used to encourage; the blaring of “Don’t Stop Believing” at the start of the fourth quarter, something he says he initiated; and the end zone expansion he helped champion. Because of the latter, Mississippi State moved its home locker room into the new portion of the end zone and turned its old home base over to the visitors. Mullen was back in his old digs. He compared the experience to an episode of the 1990s show Seinfeld. “It’s kind of like Bizarro World,” Mullen said to chuckling reporters. “They flipped the locker room. One thing I had to make sure was I took a right instead of a left when I ran out of the tunnel.”
He made the correct turn, got booed and then took some risks that won his team the game, none greater than a 20-yard touchdown on a double pass in the third quarter from quarterback Feleipe Franks, to Toney (feigning a quick screen), to tight end Moral Stephens. It’s a play the Gators put in during camp and executed to perfection.“[They’re] a really aggressive defense. We had been running some quick screens,” Mullen says. “All the sudden they jump up on a quick screen and the pass is open.”
Even more impressive, though, was coordinator Todd Grantham’s swarming defense. Grantham, Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator a year ago, had his charges in the Bulldogs’ backfield for most of the game. They sacked Fitzgerald six times, capped off by a fourth-down safety blitz in the waning seconds that drove the quarterback into the ground and sent the Florida sideline into hysterics. The Bulldogs punted five straight times in the second half and were forced into four three-and-outs. Mullen heard the fourth-down safety blitz on his headset and stayed quiet. “Todd and I have been through it before,” Mullen smiles. “I’ve learned one thing through the years, ‘Shut my mouth in that situation.’”
The celebration commenced shortly afterward, and Mullen got the cold water, a surprise to the coach, he admits, but something that “shows the guys are starting to buy in,” he said, “show there’s love in that locker room.” Moments later, Mullen wrapped his arms around a dozen former players and then sung the fight song with his current ones, all in front of a visiting section of fans who were chanting his name. “I told our guys coming in, it wasn’t about me,” Mullen said.
“We knew how much went into this week,” Toney said. “We knew it was a lot on his shoulders. He told us don’t play for him, but we played for him at the end of the day.”
They carried him around, they bathed him in ice water and then they watched him give that game ball to his boss. In a one-on-one moment with a reporter after his news conference, Mullen smiled when asked about that game-ball transaction. “Maybe we’ll share it.”