Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald never saw Donovan Stiner coming.
No one saw him coming, to be fair, but just about every Gators fan has seen the play by now.
Blitzing with a safety on 4th and 10 on Florida’s own 45-yard line was risky. If Fitzgerald had caught sight of the UF safety running right toward him up the middle, a simple dodge to the side and a throw to the presumably open receiver downfield could have been disastrous.
He didn’t, though.
Fitzgerald saw Stiner but not until the MSU quarterback was already being knocked to the ground.
“If I’ve learned one thing through the years, it’s to shut my mouth in that situation,” Gators coach Dan Mullen said of the decision to call a safety blitz. “I’m just gonna shut my mouth. Todd (Grantham), I’m here if you need me.”
Stiner’s sack was the epitome of Florida’s defensive effort in its 13-6 win over Mississippi State in Starkville.
It will need a repeat performance when it faces No. 5 LSU on Saturday.
Mullen said his team played hard against Mississippi State and grinded for the win. He compared it to the Kentucky loss on Sept. 8, with the only difference being UF executing its big plays against the Bulldogs.
“We came out and played hard tonight and were better this week than we were last week,” Mullen said. “If we want to continue, if we continue to do that, we’ll have the opportunity to win another game next week.”
The Gators’ tenacious play showed a lot more in the second half, but they were outplayed by MSU in the first half. The Bulldogs ran for 94 yards in the first two quarters behind Fitzgerald and running backs Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams.
But a major stat was that Mississippi State converted on just one-of-five third downs in the first half, and the Gators held MSU to just six points.
That was all of the points they allowed. The Bulldogs failed to score in the second half and had four three-and-outs in their final seven drives.
Defensive end Jabari Zuniga said the win was a testament to how much work the defense has put into improving.
“It motivated us,” he said. “That following Monday when we went to practice we got after it. We had a lot of physical periods, team run, we had some one-on-one periods, so we just got after it.”
The defense is improving but still isn’t at the level Mullen wants it to be.
Florida’s defense might have to play even more physical next week with a matchup against a top-five opponent in LSU on Saturday.
The win in Starkville was just a foundation for the Florida defense. How it responds in practice this week will determine how it will play against the Tigers.
“I think our guys are really starting to buy into, ‘We need to prepare the right way,’” Mullen said. “And if we do that, your performance is going to start to improve.”
Follow Jake Dreilinger on Twitter @DreilingerJake or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florida safety Donovan Stiner (13) sacked Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald at the end of the game, forcing a turnover on downs and sealing the win for the Gators.