Notebook: Mullen addresses clock management, penalties and more

Florida head coach Dan Mullen came under fire among fans for the way he managed the closing minutes of the first half in the Gators’ eventual 20-13 loss to Kentucky on Saturday.

The Gators led 10-7 when they sacked Kentucky quarterback Will Levis at the Kentucky 41-yard line on third down with about 2 ½ minutes to go before halftime. Mullen had all three of his timeouts available, but he elected not to use one after the sack.

Then, after the punt was downed at the UF 13 with 1:56 to go, quarterback Emory Jones threw a couple of short passes for a total of 11 yards. They then handed the ball off to Malik Davis a couple of times to run out the clock despite having all of their timeouts available.

That sequence seemed way out of character for Mullen, who’s regularly used the closing minutes of the first half to change the momentum of games throughout his tenure at UF.

If he had kept his foot on the gas pedal against Kentucky, maybe they would’ve scored some points and used that as a springboard to a better second half.

On Monday, Mullen explained his thought process on not being aggressive in that situation. He pointed out that Kentucky also had all three of its timeouts left and the edge in field position. The last thing he wanted to do was go three-and-out quickly and give the Wildcats enough time to score before the half.

Minimizing Kentucky’s opportunity to score was more important to him than scoring himself at the time.

“That was a big change in the game last year,” Mullen said. “We pinned them deep under two minutes left in the half, we used all three timeouts, forced a punt and ran the punt back for a touchdown. [It] really turned the course of the game. By the time we get the ball into range, up to about the 30, there’s about under 30 seconds left in the half.

“At that point we said, ‘Hey, we’re in a position right now [where] we can take it in rather than take a risk throwing the ball down the field.’ We’d been playing pretty well defensively, and I thought we’d moved the ball fairly well, just some mistakes hurt us. So, we were going to take it into halftime after getting the first downs to get out of the half and not let them force a flip in field position.”

Mullen also said that they tried to generate some explosive plays that would’ve put them in a position to be more aggressive, but Kentucky’s defense forced Jones to settle for checkdowns. Once that happened twice, Mullen decided to shut it down.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t going to look to take a shot,” he said. “Two of those plays we called to see if we can take a shot down the field. They bailed everybody back, we checked it down. Now you’re looking at the clock, and you’re a play away from having to punt and they potentially get good field position.”

Those field position concerns played the biggest factor in Mullen’s decision to drain the clock.

“If they were punting from their own 5-yard line, we would have taken the timeouts,” he said. “If we would have started the possession at the 40, we probably would have had a different mindset.”

Penalties galore

Gators fans probably don’t want to see a yellow flag for the rest of their lives after Saturday. The Gators were penalized 15 times for 115 yards, their most penalties in a game since 2001. Eight of them were false start penalties, with all five starting linemen committing at least one.

Those penalties made it extremely difficult for the offense to gain any sort of rhythm. It seemed like every time they lined up for a third-and-1 that somebody would flinch and put them into an obvious passing situation.

A holding call on center Kingsley Eguakun wiped out a first-down run by Dameon Pierce in the third quarter and set the stage for the blocked field goal that changed the momentum.

It was very uncharacteristic for a Mullen-coached team. The Gators had gone 36 consecutive games without committing a double-digit number of penalties under his watch after years of being one of the most penalized teams in the SEC under previous coaching staffs.

Mullen said that he takes the blame for the lack of discipline that his team showed against Kentucky.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure the discipline this team plays with and executes at a high level,” he said. “I’d love to say it’s more than that [to our offensive struggles], but you go watch the film, and it’s pretty obvious.

“I don’t ever remember a game as a head coach where we’ve had 15 penalties in a game before. I’ve coached a bunch of games, so maybe there’s one skipping my mind out there, but I don’t think I’ve had one with that many penalties before. So, that is disappointing for me.”

While fans and media alike wondered why the Gators never switched to a silent count against Kentucky, Mullen pointed out that other teams have used that same exact snap count in the Swamp before, so he doesn’t think the crowd noise was the issue.

Still, he said that they’re evaluating every part of their play-calling operation to get to the bottom of the issue. If that means changing their snap count, they will do it.

“That’s something we’ll look at with our guys,” he said. “It’s something we use and most teams around the country use. It’s something we’re looking at to make sure we’re communicating everything the right way.

“There’s a lot that goes into what we practice and how we do things. We’re going to continue to look at each one of the different scenarios and everything that happens, and we’ll go improve on it and coach it up and get it fixed.”

Special teams fiasco

UF’s special teams have been anything but special this season. They gave up a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown against the Wildcats. They committed a delay-of-game penalty prior to a long field goal attempt earlier in the game.

They missed an extra point and forced the offense to use more time to score a touchdown by muffing a kickoff out of bounds at the 1 against Alabama.

The Gators rank last in the conference in kickoff returns (14.3 yards per return). Jeremy Crawshaw has mishit a couple of punts, which has led to the Gators ranking 12th in the league in net punting (37.8 yards per punt).

Mullen said that there isn’t one underlying issue with the special teams units but that they’re looking for ways to improve.

“There’s obviously different things that go into it,” he said. “We had a bunch of penalties on special teams last week. We had three penalties on special teams that end up being huge plays, three different individuals responsible for each penalty, and they end up being big factors in the game. So, it is something that we’ve just got to work on and continue to improve, and that’s on me to make sure that we’re playing at a disciplined level.”

Deep shots missing

According to the Twitter account @SEC_StatCat, 19 of Jones’ 31 passes against the Wildcats were either thrown behind the line of scrimmage or less than 10 yards downfield. He didn’t attempt a single pass that traveled more than 20 yards down the field.

The lack of a vertical passing game forced the Gators to have to go on long drives to score, which they were unable to do because of the penalties.

Mullen said that he trusts Jones to throw the ball down the field but that Kentucky’s defensive scheme took those throws away from him.

“They were playing a lot of one-high [safety] deep soft coverage,” he said. “So, schematically, they’re just bailing everybody really deep, so you’re not going to just launch it into coverage downfield.”

Losing is no laughing matter to Mullen

As the final seconds ticked off of the clock on Saturday, ESPN’s cameras caught Mullen with a smile on his face for a split second as he walked out to midfield to shake Kentucky coach Mark Stoops’ hand.

As is the case with almost everything these days, screenshots of Mullen smiling have circulated on social media, and Mullen’s reaction to losing has come under intense scrutiny.

This was the same coach who passionately explained what it means to be a competitor after he lost a game to Missouri in 2018.

“If you want to thumb wrestle me right now, I’m going to kick your ass,” Mullen said after that game. “You want to go run stadiums? I’ll kick your ass. If you’re going to keep score and someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose, I want to beat your ass.

“If we don’t have that attitude in the locker room, we’ve got a problem.”

Nearly three years later, some fans wonder if the program indeed does have a problem with its mentality.

Mullen shot down any notion that he doesn’t take losing seriously.

“I’m sure if you keep a camera on somebody, you can still-shot whatever thing that’s going on in your mind,” he said. “In my mind, at that point, I’m thinking about everything that went on during the course of the game, what we did well, things we have to improve. I’m thinking about how I want to talk to the team, how we’ve got to build it back up. We have a whole long season to go play ahead of us.

“If you keep a camera on me the entire game, you’ll probably catch me doing all kinds of things that probably would be like, ‘Boy, I wonder why he’s doing that at this very second?’”

Mullen doubled down on his speech from three years ago and said that he’s still as competitive now as he was then.

“If you would have gone out on a run with me this morning and we got within the last half mile, I’m going to sprint and beat you, and that was just going on a nice morning jog,” Mullen said. “If you walk with me down the street, you’ll probably see I walk a step in front of you because I don’t like being behind people. I like winning, and that’s just going for a walk down the street.

“You go play … a friendly game of pickup hoops and it gets close, don’t be surprised if you get an elbow in the eye, and that’s just lunchtime hoops.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.

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