A Gatorade-drenched Dan Mullen gets a post-game kiss from his wife, Megan.

STARKVILLE – Dan Mullen’s message to his Florida Gators all week was simple: “This isn’t about me, this is about us.”

That being the case, “us” won 13-6 over Mississippi State in a bruising slugfest at Scott Field, but “me” had an awful lot to do with it.

That’s why some in the media dubbed this the Mullen Bowl. That’s why Mullen, who just for the previous nine years coached State, got an icy, Gatorade bath from his players. And that’s why the Florida fans in the southwest corner of Davis-Wade Stadium were chanting, “Dan Mullen! Dan Mullen! Dan Mullen!” as the Gators exited the field.

It was a surreal scene. “Bizarro World,” Mullen called it. Because State has built a new home locker room, “I was in the same locker room I’ve been in for the the last nine years,” Mullen said.

Rick Cleveland

Yes, and he experienced all the things that make Scott Field such a wretched place to play as the hated visitor, not the beloved home coach.

“I came out on the field an hour before the game and the student section was already packed,” Mullen said.

Many were dressed in T-shirts that said: “Dan Who?”

The home crowd – as loud as I’ve ever heard it here – screamed loudest when the Gators were calling their signals. Cowbells rang, deafeningly, in between. Florida linemen jumped the gun four times for false starts in the first half. But Florida fought through it all.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” Mullen said. “This is one of the toughest environments in college football and I know how much talent they have on that team over there, but we came in here and found a way to win … we won by grinding it out.”

They did. The Gators out-grinded a team that prides itself on grinding. Florida ran 66 plays for 357 yards against what Mullen called “one the deepest, best defenses in the country.” State 56 plays for only 202.

You ask me, Mullen’s plan was perfect. Offensively, he wanted the Gators to win the perimeter, because he knew they could not win between the tackles. That’s why we saw quick screen after quick screen that just kept getting yardage in big chunks. Game balls easily could have been given to all the Gator wide receivers, not so much for their running but for their crisp blocking on those screens.

The game’s only touchdown? In the third quarter Mullen called for some “trickeration”:  a double pass that had the quarterback, throwing a long lateral to a running back, who threw a perfect 20-yard pass to a wide open receiver. “We’ve had that play all along,” Mullen said. “We were waiting for the right time to run it.”

Defensively, the plan was to keep Nick Fitzgerald in the pocket, not let him get outside, and not let him have seams to run to the inside. Mission accomplished. State ran successfully early in the game but Florida adjusted, putting more players near the line of scrimmage.

State had chances to throw deep but either passes were dropped (including one sure, perfectly thrown touchdown), or Fitzgerald misfired, or he was sacked (six times) before he ever had a chance to throw. For State to improve, the Bulldogs must find some receivers who can hang on to the football. (And it would help if they take a few blocking lessons from the Florida film).

“Our defense played very, very well,” State coach Joe Moorhead said. “They kept us in it….If the defense is playing that way, I have to put a plan together offensively that puts us in the position to be successful. I have to call good plays, and when we call good plays we have to execute them … We just have to find a way to start scoring some points.”

As it was, all the celebrating at the end was on the Florida side – and there was plenty of it. Mullen got hugs and kisses from his wife, Megan, and from his two children who were born here in Starkville. He got hugs from his players and his coaches, as well. He mugged with the cheerleaders, waved to the chanting Gator fans.

As you read this, he probably has not stopped grinning.

Dan Mullen tries to console Cory Thomas, State’s defensive tackle after Florida beat the Bulldogs 13-6.

And there were some touching scenes, as well. One by one, Mississippi State players, some with tears in their eyes, came up to Mullen for heartfelt hugs. He had some words for every one of them.

When asked about it afterward, Mullen became emotional. His voice cracked as he talked.

“It’s hard to explain the coach-player relationship if you haven’t been a part of it,” Mullen said. “I recruited those guys and coached them. They believed in what I was trying to build here.”

He paused and then continued, “I love those guys, I really do. I feel for them. . . I believe they’ll go on and have a great season. But there’s something about competing even when you’re competing against guys you love. They wanted to win. I wanted to win. … I love winning and I love competing.

“You know, this is probably the last time I will ever coach at Davis-Wade Stadium. I’m glad it was a victory. Mostly, I’m glad for our guys.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.