No, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down
No, I'll stand my ground
Won't be turned around
And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down
Gonna stand my ground
And I won't back down
Saturday’s primetime showdown between the No. 10 Gators and Missouri will be best remembered for the brawl that broke out as the teams headed into their locker rooms for halftime and UF coach Dan Mullen’s role in instigating it. Defensive ends Zachary Carter and Antwaun Powell were ejected for their roles in the fight, and the SEC could take further disciplinary action in the coming days.
The melee started after UF quarterback Kyle Trask was blasted high well after releasing a Hail Mary throw on the final play of the half – to which several of his teammates took objection to it.
Here's what actually sparked the Missouri-Florida fight. pic.twitter.com/SYatXlfx5g
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) November 1, 2020
“We were out there trying to get our guys off the field because it was getting testy,” Mullen said. “We have a big game next game. I think it kept growing and growing. We’re trying to push guys back and get in the middle and get the officials in the middle. Get them in the middle, get us in the middle, get their team off, our team off. But everyone’s running to the locker room, and it keeps spilling down that way.
“Really unfortunate situation. It’s not something we condone, obviously. It’s not something that you really want to see in the game at all. I’ll tell you this: I give our coaches and our players a lot of credit, and I give Coach [Eliah] Drinkwitz and the Missouri staff and their players a lot of credit because how tense that first half ended just shows the class of both teams being able to come out the second half and just play football. Absolutely zero got carried over into the second half. Zero of that carried over postgame.”
While the fight was unfortunate, it served as an accurate metaphor for the entire game. In their 41-17 defeat of the Tigers (2-3), the Gators (3-1) showed that they are fighters. With everything they worked for all offseason slipping away following the loss to Texas A&M three weeks ago, they “didn’t let go of the rope,” to borrow a phrase that Mullen has used repeatedly throughout his time at Florida.
Despite not practicing for two weeks, they didn’t make an abnormal number of sloppy mistakes. Despite not having three starters in the secondary, they held Missouri to 248 total yards and 3-for-15 on third down. Despite half of the offensive line not practicing until Wednesday due to COVID issues, they paved the way for 4.8 yards per carry and didn’t give up a sack. Despite having to settle for a pair of field goals in the red zone and throwing a pick-six in the first half, the offense found its groove to the tune of 514 yards and 7.2 yards per play.
“Our guys continue to battle, continued to do what they were supposed to do, and we were able to get a win,” Mullen said. “This was a big win for us today. I was concerned. You’re talking about a Missouri team that lit up LSU, that dominated Kentucky last week, and actually, I thought they kind of hung with Alabama and played then really tough too. We knew they were a really good football team, and we were coming off all the adversity. I was really proud with how our guys came out and performed.”
By far the biggest surprise in this game was the play of UF’s defense. They entered the day ranked 13th in the SEC in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense. They forced just three turnovers in the first three games. They allowed just 10 points to the Tigers – all with the game well in hand – and recovered a pair of fumbles.
“We hear [the outside criticism], but we know we have to play better as a defense and as a unit,” safety Brad Stewart said. “We hear what y'all write, and we know we got to step up, so that’s what we are going to work on week in and week out, and hopefully, we can have y'all saying different things, people saying different things about our defense because we know what we can do.
“It was important for us to go out there and play for our coach, Coach [Todd] Grantham, to play better. It was a lot. We had to really bond together this week and really play as one, and I am going to keep saying it because that’s what happened. We had young guys playing, and we all had to bond together.”
Upfront defensively, the Gators seemed more comfortable and aggressive, which can be attributed in no small part to nose tackle Kyree Campbell making his season debut. He’s a disruptive run-stopper whose presence allowed several other players to slide into positions that fit their skillsets better. They gave up just 1.7 yards per rush and sacked Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak three times.
Mullen said that while the unit has been degraded and ripped to shreds by fans and the media this season, the confidence within the locker room never wavered. They’ve always believed they were a good defense. They just needed to find the right formula.
“I thought [the defensive staff] did a good job of making the adjustments, putting guys in position to make plays,” he said. “Our guys taking a lot of pride to pick it up after people have been getting after them, but we haven’t lost confidence in that, in our ability to make plays and our playmakers on the field. I’m really proud of how those guys played. You knew they were going to take pride in how they were going to play the game this week, and they certainly did that for four quarters.”
While the defense dominated from the first snap to the last, the offense turned in its worst half of the season in the first half. While they piled up 310 yards, they only had six points on the board with less than two minutes to go before halftime. The offensive line looked like they hadn’t practiced most of the week, as the Gators rushed for just 39 yards, and Trask was frequently forced to flee the pocket. The wide receivers couldn’t get much separation, and it looked like they would trail heading into the locker room.
Kadarius Toney had other ideas. In a span of 14 plays between the two halves, Toney scored three touchdowns, including a ridiculous, mind-blowing 18-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass that gave them a lead they never relinquished.
“You watch his discipline and his understanding of how the plays are being run, how the plays are hitting, his production going forward,” Mullen said. “He had one where he stopped and ran back all the way around the field today, and I don't mind that. Because you watch him, you watch how he's matured and grown into playing within the offense, not just give him the ball and ‘I'm just going to run around like crazy.’ He plays within the scheme, he sets up runs, he sets up blocks, and then he can make special things happen and make you miss tackles as well.”
The rest of the offense came to life in the second half, with Justin Shorter and Trevon Grimes catching touchdown passes and the running game eliminating any chance of a Missouri comeback.
“It was just unfortunate that what had happened, how Kyle got hit late, and obviously, everyone just doesn’t like seeing the quarterback get hit or usually anyone on the team,” Shorter said. “It definitely fired us up, but Coach Mullen came in and calmed us down and it was like, ‘Hey, we have to play smart, to be smart. So, when we go back out there, let’s just do our job and continue to dominate.’”
For the first time this season, Florida won a game by playing complementary football. The defense and special teams kept the offense within striking distance while they sputtered for most of the first half, and the offense exploded in the second half to give the defense some breathing room. They’ll need to do that again next week to have a chance to beat No. 5 Georgia and stake their claim as a championship contender.
“I don’t know if we were really as efficient as we want to be offensively, but the defense allowed us to get more possessions offensively, and if you give our offense enough possessions, we have enough playmakers they have the opportunity to go score points,” Mullen said. “That’s really how you want it to be. That’s what puts pressure. Our defense did an unbelievable job allowing the offense to continue to put pressure on Missouri and eventually pull away.”
There will undoubtedly be more adversity and frustrations in the weeks ahead. Games may get canceled, key players may miss games, certain positions may not play well and they may lose another game. One thing is for certain, though; these Gators will fight through it all.