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Missouri 24, Florida 23: Tigers outfox Gators in overtime, likely ending Dan Mullen era

The Gators went down fighting, to be fair — but even being in position for that to happen is why this is no longer tenable for Florida’s head man.

NCAA Football: Florida at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

In the end, Dan Mullen had one last trick to pull out of his bag for Florida’s offense: He stole elements of the infamous Philly Special thrown by his one-time pupil Trey Burton, the one that helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl, and had Trent Whittemore toss a touchdown pass to Emory Jones to give the Gators their biggest lead over Missouri on a dismal, draining Saturday night in Columbia.

In the end, Missouri had one better for Florida, with Eli Drinkwitz’s offense powering in for a potentially game-tying touchdown in overtime behind Tyler Badie — who leaned and leaned and leaned on a valiant Florida defense until it collapsed — and then eschewing a point-after to allow Connor Bazelak, harried all day, to toss up a rainbow throw on a tight end throwback to Daniel Parker Jr. for a game-winning two-point conversion.

In the end, it was Missouri 24, Florida 23.

It will all but certainly spell the end for Dan Mullen’s time with the Gators, whether the formal announcement comes later on Saturday night or on Sunday or after Mullen coaches the Gators in their season finale against Florida State — something that is likely to happen whether or not Mullen is fired this weekend, or Monday. Florida sputtered on offense on the road against an SEC foe once more this year, with Jones throwing for 261 yards and running for 45 more despite several sacks, but the Gators wringing just 16 points in regulation from that yardage.

Florida running backs combining for just 48 rushing yards on 21 carries had a lot to do with that. So did penalties, some of which stalled drives and others of which sabotaged them before they even began.

But Florida simply could not move Missouri up front except very early on, and could not keep Jones upright and unhassled for much longer. The Gators’ only touchdown drive required a 45-yard strike to Whittemore — their second-best play of the night, behind a gallant but somewhat gratuitous attempt to score before halftime on a catch-and-run attempt instead of a Hail Mary that netted Jacob Copeland 49 of his 102 receiving yards — to unlock goal-to-go downs with mere feet left to cover, and while Dameon Pierce predictably punching in a touchdown to cap that drive and put Florida up 13-9 was a moment of brief glory, the brevity mattered more.

Missouri answered that and a surprisingly game Florida defense’s initial resistance by wearing the Gators down with a steady diet of Badie, who made it to 146 rushing yards on the night despite being bottled up for the better part of three quarters. Bazelak also avoided any major errors, and Missouri made use of the biggest ones by Florida’s defense on its only touchdown drive.

A holding penalty seemingly on Kaiir Elam voided his own impressive interception wrestled from a receiver’s hands. A few plays later, Elam lining up offsides generated a free play that Bazelak used to find a streaking Niko Hea for a long touchdown with defensive lineman Khris Bogle hopelessly stranded in coverage.

And yet Florida fought back from that 16-13 deficit, getting a game-tying field goal on the game’s next drive with the aid of a conversion on fourth and one near midfield. And Florida’s defense stiffened just enough to make ballyhooed kicker Harrison Mevis’s potential game-winner with just more than a minute to go a difficult 49-yarder — and one that he pushed right for just his second miss of the year.

But with no timeouts remaining — and Missouri holding two — Florida opted to run the ball to begin its last drive of regulation, rather than trying to push for a score through the air and risk an incompletion or worse. And so the Gators ended up in overtime, where they met a fate as frustrating as the night had been as a whole.

Florida is now 5-6 in 2021, and needs to beat ascending rival FSU — also 5-6, but 5-2 in its last seven games — to make a bowl. Even that probably won’t save Mullen, whose program’s decline to death throes akin to those of the Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain regimes has been a stunning, agonizing plummet from a 29-6 start over his first 35 games.

Over Florida’s last 14, the Gators are just 5-9 — collecting zero road wins over SEC opponents, taking losses to Kentucky, South Carolina, and Missouri, and producing very little evidence to support the idea that Mullen is the right coach to rescue this craft from its tailspin.

Dan Mullen is all but certain to coach his 50th game for Florida in The Swamp next Saturday, getting a final sendoff in front of fans who crowed about him before caterwauling and cracking jokes about him.

But stalking the sidelines for a 51st seems impossible now — as impossible, perhaps, as Florida entering this week at 5-6 would have to anyone following the Gators a year ago at this time.