COLUMBIA, Mo. — If Florida’s 24-23 overtime loss at Missouri was the end — or at least the fatal blow — of Dan Mullen’s Gators tenure, it was a fitting one.
Everything that put Mullen on a scorching hot seat entering Memorial Stadium showed up Saturday in an unsightly loss to the middling Tigers (6-5, 3-4 SEC). A lack of discipline. A defense prone to breakdowns. Mind-boggling inconsistencies. And an inexplicable collapse that mirrors Mullen’s stunning fall from grace.
The biggest issue for UF (5-6, 2-6) was a lack of discipline.
Almost all of the Gators’ nine penalties were big. An offsides on fourth and inches — after a defensive timeout, no less — eventually led to a Missouri field goal. Defensive holding negated an interception. A false start on fourth down forced UF to punt. Defensive pass interference on third down kept another drive alive.
“Just way too many mental mistakes,” Mullen said.
Just like Marco Wilson throwing a shoe last year against LSU or Florida committing 15 penalties in the loss at Kentucky last month.
The heavily scrutinized defense, to its credit, played one of its best games of the season, in Game 2 of the post-Todd Grantham era. UF held Missouri running back Tyler Badie to 19 yards in the first half and started the second by forcing three consecutive three and outs.
But it broke down, just as it always seems to.
Badie ran for 102 yards in the second half, as he exploited creases in the UF run defense that were there against LSU, and against South Carolina, and against Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl and against too many other opponents over the last two years.
Badie ripped off rushes of 17 and 19 yards on the final plays of the third quarter to set up the Tigers’ first touchdown — a 41-yard pass from quarterback Connor Bazelak to a wide-open Niko Hea to take a 16-13 lead.
Overtime was more of the same. Badie needed only two carries to hit the end zone. On the two-point conversion, Bazelak was falling backward under pressure.
“And then we blew the coverage,” Mullen said.
They blew it by failing to see tight end Daniel Parker slip from the right side to the left. No defender was within 4 yards of him as he grabbed another too-easy score to end another UF loss.
The most confusing part of Saturday’s performance was the collapse of the offense — Mullen’s forte. The Gators’ 16 points in regulation were the fewest Missouri had allowed all season. The previous low: the 24 points Jim McElwain’s Central Michigan Chippewas put up in Week 1.
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Yet, that, too, falls in line with the trajectory of this team. It’s something new every week. Special teams mistakes against Alabama. Invisible defense against LSU. Turnovers against Georgia. Missed tackles against South Carolina. Consecutive three and outs and questionable play calling at the end of regulation against Missouri.
On and on, one thing after another, adding up to UF’s fewest number of SEC wins since 1986, back when the league had only 10 teams.
“We’ve got to be mentally tougher,” Mullen said. “That’s (on) the coaches.”
The question now is which coaches will take the fall for UF’s stunning slide. This time last year, the Gators were ranked sixth nationally, on track to win the SEC East and serious College Football Playoff contenders. Now they’ve finished sixth in the division, ahead of only Vanderbilt, with Mullen potentially in line for a $12 million dismissal.
Mullen sounded more distraught than usual after UF’s ninth loss in its last 11 Power Five games. He pointed out how his Gators have lost their last seven one-score games — a sign that either the Gators aren’t that far away from being SEC contenders again or a sign of how they keep failing to make the plays that win games and, eventually, championships. That view depends, as Mullen said this week, on your narrative.
Here was the one that came out of Saturday: In front of an unimpressive senior day crowd in penultimate game of Mullen’s fourth season, his Gators blew a fourth-quarter lead to lose a fourth consecutive SEC game, to the type of middling opponent a program like Florida should destroy.
Then Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz ended his victorious news conference by pulling a dark hoodie over his head and pulling out a lightsaber — a nod to the Darth Vader costume Mullen wore last year after UF’s Halloween win over the Tigers. As Drinkwitz walked away, a coach with a career 8-9 SEC record delivered a fatal dig to the league’s second-longest tenured coach.
“May the Force be with you,” Drinkwitz said.
After Saturday, Mullen needs all the help he can get.
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