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Saturday, May 21, 2022
<p>Safety Donovan Stiner (13) sacked MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on the Bulldogs' last play of the game Saturday. The Gators defense finished with six sacks. </p>

Safety Donovan Stiner (13) sacked MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on the Bulldogs' last play of the game Saturday. The Gators defense finished with six sacks. 

Quarterback Feleipe Franks took the snap in the third quarter and immediately threw it to Kadarius Toney on his left.

Toney caught it, but instead of taking off downfield like he normally does, he stopped, saw an open receiver streaking toward the end zone and launched it.

Tight end Moral Stephens created separation and was open in the end zone, and the right throw would reach him.

There’s a reason Toney was the first player on Florida’s roster to don the “ATH” moniker. His pass sailed over two Mississippi State defenders’ heads and right into the hand of Stephens for the first touchdown of the game.
The Gators dominated the Bulldogs through the air and physically on the ground on their way to a 13-6 win over MSU in Starkville, Mississippi on Saturday night.

“Last week, we won by the big play,” coach Dan Mullen said. “This week, we won by grinding it out. That’s pretty cool.”

Florida outgained Mississippi State in passing yards 239-98, with 12 different receivers recording at least a catch.

Franks was efficient in the pocket, completing 22 of his 31 passes for 219 yards with an interception. While he didn’t throw a touchdown, his ability to move the ball allowed Florida to get in good field position for Toney’s touchdown pass and kicker Evan McPherson’s field goals in the second and fourth quarters.

“(Franks) made some really good decisions tonight, he made some good checks,” Mullen said. “He made some good throws down the field.”

Florida’s defense had a rocky start but evened out as the game progressed. It was marred early by cornerback Trey Dean’s targeting ejection early in the first quarter.

The freshman saw MSU’s punt returner muff the punt and dove in an attempt to recover the ball, which resulted in helmet-to-helmet contact.

Dean’s ejection meant that Florida -- who was already shorthanded with the loss of cornerback Marco Wilson -- would be lacking even more depth at corner.

That didn’t faze the defense, though. It held Mississippi State to six points in the first half and then scoreless for the rest of the game. The Gators sacked MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald four times, and they forced crucial three-and-outs in the second half.

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“Really we just started playing harder, because upfront, we wasn't really being as physical as we knew we could,” defensive end Jabari Zuniga said. “So we started playing harder.”

The defense played harder in the second half and shut down Mississippi State’s offense, but it was a game of field goals early on.

Both the Gators and the Bulldogs moved the ball downfield, but they couldn’t reach the endzone.

Instead, they relied on the kickers.
Mississippi State struck first late in the first quarter when Jace Christmann nailed one from 34 yards out. Florida responded in the second quarter with one from McPherson 39 yards, but Christmann kicked one more to go up 6-3 before the end of the half.

The second half was much different.

“Every day you got to be physical, so us not really playing physical in the first half was a big thing for us,” linebacker Vosean Joseph said. “So we came out like telling each other we got to beat them off the line, create a new line of scrimmage and then just go out there and play our butts off.”

Florida played like a different team. Toney’s touchdown pass gave the Gators their first lead of the game, and McPherson’s field goal in the fourth quarter solidified the lead.

MSU didn’t even attempt another field goal or come close to scoring. MSU’s last seven drives ended in five punts and two turnover on downs. Four of those drives were three-and-outs.

Mullen said the Gators came in to Starkville and found a different way to win though physicality. The first-year Florida coach wanted to see his players play with that toughness they exhibited in the second half.

The Gators wanted to play for a different reason: getting their coach a win over his former team.

“Yeah, most definitely,” cornerback C.J. Henderson said. “That wasn’t our focus but as a team that’s what we knew we had to come out and get this win for him. We knew those guys wanted to beat him bad and we had to stand up for our coach.”

Follow Jake Dreilinger on Twitter @DreilingerJake and contact him at jdreilinger@alligator.org.

Safety Donovan Stiner (13) sacked MSU quarterback Nick Fitzgerald on the Bulldogs' last play of the game Saturday. The Gators defense finished with six sacks. 

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