GAINESVILLE — If there were any questions about how No. 10 Florida would respond from its first loss of the season and a two-week shutdown from a coronavirus outbreak, they were answered just before halftime Saturday night.
Yes, the Gators still have some fight in them.
Down 15 players — including three key members of the secondary — UF rolled to a 41-17 home win over Missouri (2-3). The defining moment of the night, however, was more UFC than SEC.
On the final play of the first half, Missouri’s Trajan Jeffcoat hit star quarterback Kyle Trask high and late after he launched his Hail Mary.
“I think the team just got fired up,” Trask said.
Starting with coach Dan Mullen.
Mullen said he didn’t see the hit but heard it might have been a late. He steamed onto the field and had to be restrained by a staffer as he headed toward the officials.
“I’m trying to get our players off the field, because I know we have a big game next week,” Mullen said.
If that was his goal, it didn’t work. Both teams converged in a scuffle that looked like an angry mosh pit. Multiple players threw punches. Several others shoved. Three were ejected: UF starting defensive lineman Zachary Carter (Hillsborough High) and freshman linebacker Antwuan Powell plus Missouri’s Tre Williams. Every player received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Tigers coach Eliah Drinkwitz said he had no idea who started it or why why the Gators started heading toward their side of the field, but the film won’t lie.
“It’s an ugly scene,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s an ugly scene for football, an ugly scene for college football. I’m not proud of it."
When the players dispersed, the tension remained. Mullen was still fuming when he went back to the officials and Drinkwitz. He had to be restrained by coaches and security for a second time.
UF’s limited crowd roared as Mullen, waving his arms, finally headed into the tunnel for halftime. But he still wasn’t done. Mullen went back toward the field again, waving his arms frantically and sending the socially distanced fans into a frenzy.
“I was just trying to get them to continue to stick with the game and continue to cheer,” Mullen said.
They did. When Mullen and the Gators (3-1) retook the field after halftime, fans began chanting “DAN MULL-EN!”
Despite Mullen’s obvious role in the scuffle, he said repeatedly that his goal was to keep players from getting into trouble, not to incite anything. The Darth Vader costume he wore into postgame interviews — seriously — was simply a Halloween costume, not a metaphor for the villainy role he seems to be taking on.
But if Mullen had an ulterior motive, like, say, trying to fire his team up after a somewhat sluggish start, his plan succeeded. The locker room buzzed at the break.
“Everybody came together and rallied together,” Trask said.
UF ran Trask three times on the opening drive of the third quarter. He lowered his shoulder on one hard rush to pick up a first down, and his 15-yard rush set up a dazzling touchdown run by Kadarius Toney — one of his three scores.
On defense, UF forced back-to-back three-and-outs to start the second half. A Gators pass rush that went six consecutive quarters without a sack had two on one drive. By the time UF tacked on a touchdown pass from Trask to Justin Shorter in the final minute of the third, the Tigers were knocked out.
With that out of the way, the Gators can begin focusing on the heavyweight showdown their fans have been buzzing about since January. Florida-Georgia, next week in Jacksonville.
It’s unclear whether Saturday’s brawl will have any suspensions that could spill over into the defacto SEC East title game. But if Mullen and the Gators wanted to send a message after their coronavirus shutdown and the Aggies' upset, it should be clear throughout the SEC. UF isn’t just a finesse offense.
These Gators can fight, too.