Prior to Saturday night in Starkville, it had been a while since the Florida Gators had notched consecutive SEC road wins in consecutive weeks.
That didn’t happen under Jim McElwain. It has only happened once before this decade, in fact, over the first three weeks of the Gators’ momentous 2012 season: Florida beat Texas A&M in the Aggies’ SEC debut, then went to Tennessee and blew out the Volunteers in a night game on an ESPN network — a rarity in that rivalry.
This year, the Gators have accomplished a similar sweep in reverse.
Last week, they pummeled Tennessee on Rocky Top, in a night game on ESPN; this week, they ventured to the Central Time Zone to take on a team thrilled to be playing the mighty Gators, rode out the storm of emotions surrounding the game, and secured a win to make the world take notice.
This 2018 Mississippi State team? It isn’t the equal of the 2012 Aggies, who shook up all of college football after falling to the Gators, with Johnny Manziel only truly transcending as Johnny Football after first faltering against Florida. This Florida team probably isn’t as good as that 2012 iteration, either: Those Gators came a drive against Georgia from an unbeaten regular season and a Notre Dame loss from playing for a national title, and while their style wasn’t tailored to Florida fans’ tastes, their successes shouldn’t have been — and shouldn’t be — downplayed as a result.
But through five games, two of them road contests against SEC teams, this Florida team is 4-1, with the lone close win coming in front of a maw of 60,000 fans clanging cowbells as if it could deliver a victory and salvation at the same time.
Florida denied that on Saturday night with patience and efficiency on offense, and resilience and relentlessness on defense.
Feleipe Franks, coming off two straight games of being asked to do little and struggling to complete half of his passes, finished this game with 22 completions on 31 throws, a single pick against his name, and a healthy 219 passing yards.
Florida’s three-headed running back attack of Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine, and Dameon Pierce combined for 136 total yards (106 on the ground, 30 through the air) and answered the call late, when Scarlett was asked to push piles and Pierce was tasked with trying to run out the clock.
And Florida’s receiving corps, a deep unit without a singular star, shared the load, with a staggering 13 players sharing the Gators’ 23 completions — each getting at least one six-yard reception, none getting more than four catches or 47 yards on the night — as Franks threw repeatedly to the perimeter and to sliding receivers on slants and posts to keep the chains moving and the Bulldogs panting without ever really hitting a big play.
Kadarius Toney would hit the only one of those that Florida got to keep after penalties, on a double pass — cued by, appropriately for the night, a lateral from Franks — to Moral Stephens that served as a second-half silencer. Toney had five touches, counting that pass, and got Florida 56 yards on them, and continues to be a spark for the Gators that fans will clamor to turn into a wildfire.
His best work on this night — like that of nearly every other Gator — was dependent on his ability to wring each play for as many yards as possible in front of a defense that conceded the space between the Gators and the sticks and had no interest in coughing up truly huge plays.
That lack of true explosiveness made the game a slog rather than a shootout, and all its stellar efficiency really got Florida was just 13 points.
But that was also all Florida needed.
The Gators stymied Nick Fitzgerald to a degree I haven’t seen them achieve against a supposedly good quarterback in quite a while. Fitzgerald looked like he was pressing for much of the night — and if he was, and was trying to make the perfect throw or find the right lane on every play, it would explain his 11-for-26 performance through the air (for a paltry 98 yards) and a 20-carry night that yielded just 32 yards with sacks included and saw him soak up more than double the carries of either Kylin Hill (nine carries, 41 yards) or Aeris Williams (three carries, 31 yards) on the night.
And with Fitzgerald taking most of the responsibility on his shoulders, Florida could set its sights on pressuring him to disrupt his passes and stopping him as a runner, instead of worrying about his pitches or handoffs. Mississippi State got four possessions in the fourth quarter, and ran 19 plays over those possessions; one of those 19 plays was something other than a Fitzgerald run, a Fitzgerald pass attempt, or a sack of Fitzgerald.
Florida sacked Fitzgerald six times in all, never more dramatically than on a maniacal eight-man blitz with Donovan Stiner streaking in from his safety position to end the game, and got better as the game wore on. Set aside Florida’s two penalties on Mississippi State’s final drive — one seemingly a better call than the other, at least in person — and the Bulldogs mustered single-digit yards on all of those fourth-quarter series, going three-and-out thrice and finishing that penalty-aided drive with three incompletions and Stiner’s sack.
When Florida and Mississippi State waded into the deepest part of the ocean of emotion that was Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday, the Gators kept their heads well above water, and their tails thrashing. The Bulldogs just drowned.
And that was the sort of win I saw Florida nab often under Will Muschamp in 2012, when Muschamp’s scheme and talented defenders allowed the Gators to take more than a few foes into high, hot water and wait for them to boil alive or succumb and submerge. That Texas A&M win was a lot like this one, and so were Florida’s victories over LSU, Missouri, and even Florida State. If Florida’s defense can put on performances like a vintage Muschamp-era defense while Todd Grantham is still figuring out how to best deploy Randy Shannon’s recruits, one shudders to think of how good the Gators might be if they can upgrade their talent and find scheme-specific fits.
But the difference between Florida’s 2012 wins and this one — or between most of Florida’s wins this decade and this one — is that Florida’s offense played at least an equal role in the triumph.
Franks and Toney combined to throw for 239 yards; Florida’s running game generated 118 yards. And those sums, while not enormous, were tallied over just 66 plays, fewer than Mullen would generally like to run and enough to keep Florida’s yards-per-play average at 5.4 for the night.
You know how many wins Florida had in 2012 in which it passed for 200 yards, rushed for 100 yards, and averaged at least five yards per play? Two — in September routs of .Tennessee and Kentucky.
You know how many games Florida has like that this year? Four. And Florida’s offensive stats on Saturday were eerily similar to the ones it posted against Kentucky — which suggests to me that, given that the major difference between that game and this one was Florida’s defense being gutted by the Wildcats and steel-bellied against the Bulldogs, it is now Florida’s defense that is less reliable than its offense.
I do not think, following this game, that Florida has vaulted to SEC or national contention. I would not have Florida ranked this week except as a consequence of the national landscape having maybe six truly outstanding teams and dozens of more enigmatic ones behind them. I don’t think Florida is so far ahead of schedule that the Mullen era is already a success.
But I know that these Gators walked into a stadium ready to boo and bell them back to Gainesville with bruises everywhere and tinnitus that could last weeks, and sent those hopeful fans streaming for the exits midway through the fourth quarter, with their team just one score down, and all claim on belief belonging to Florida.
Florida has been good at extinguishing even flickering flames of hope before, though not for a while. Perhaps, in time, these Gators can get back to that level consistently.
For now, we can admit that it was thrilling to see them claw to it at least once.