STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP)—The latest low point in Ron Zook’s tenure at Florida even has the coach wondering what went wrong.
Meanwhile, Sylvester Croom’s first big win at Mississippi State has given the Bulldogs and their fans a reason to believe in their first-year leader.
Jerious Norwood’s 37-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds remaining lifted the Bulldogs to a 38-31 upset of the 20th-ranked Gators on Saturday.
“This is embarrassing for us,” Zook said. “We thought we were ready to play.”
Norwood rushed for 174 yards on 29 carries and scored twice for the Bulldogs (2-5, 1-3 Southeastern Conference), who had lost five straight since beating Tulane in their first game under Croom.
“This is just the beginning,” Croom said. “We’re building to a championship program.”
Jeramie Johnson set up Norwood’s game-winner when he intercepted Chris Leak at the Mississippi State 44 with two minutes remaining.
“All that we had done to that point basically came down to one play,” Croom said. “We had to have the ball back because the one thing I did not want to do was go into overtime.”
After four running plays moved the ball to the 37, Norwood took the handoff around left end, spun past a defender, then ran through another Gator at the goal line.
“I just ran to the open space,” Norwood said. “Next thing I knew, I was in the secondary, and after that, I was in the end zone.”
Florida couldn’t get out of its own end on its final possession, and tried some trickery on its last play.
Leak passed to Dallas Baker, who lateraled to O.J. Small. He pitched back to Leak, who fumbled, and Willie Evans recovered as time expired to set off a raucous celebration.
Cowbells clanged, and fans stormed the field at the buzzer and tore down one of the goal posts.
It was reminiscent of Florida’s last trip to Starkville in 2000, when the Gators had a 72-game winning streak against unranked opponents snapped in a 47-35 loss.
That was under coach Steve Spurrier, when it was big news almost anytime the Gators lost. Florida hasn’t been as tough to beat under Zook, who was 8-5 in each of his first two seasons after replacing Spurrier.
This one will be especially tough for Gator Nation to deal with. Mississippi State was a 24 1/2 -point underdog against Florida, and had given no indication it could even be competitive with the Gators.
The Bulldogs had lost 27 of 32 SEC games since that landmark win against Florida four years ago.
“We came to the game to whip up on them, but they just came out the better team,” Gators receiver Andre Caldwell said. “We are a better team than the way we played.”
Croom, the first black head football coach in SEC history, and the Bulldogs pulled out a victory that will undoubtedly go down as one of the most surprising in school history. Croom, a longtime NFL and college assistant in his first stint as a head coach, had no doubt where it ranked for him personally.
“There have been a lot of good wins in my life, but for me, this is No. 1,” Croom said.
The Bulldogs have won four straight over Florida in Starkville. The Gators were ranked before three of those losses, and haven’t won at Scott Field since 1983.
Norwood’s first touchdown, a 1-yard dive with nine minutes left, gave the Bulldogs a 31-24 lead. But the Gators went 73 yards in eight plays, and Leak’s 1-yard TD keeper with 5:05 left tied it.
Ciatrick Fason rushed for 143 yards on 16 carries and had a 55-yard touchdown run for the Gators (4-3, 2-3).
“We’ve got players who talk during the week (who) weren’t ready today,” Fason said. “There’s going to be heat on coach Zook, but he puts players on the field to make things happen, and we didn’t make things happen.”
Leak was 20-of-35 for 260 yards with touchdowns covering 46 and 9 yards to Chad Jackson.
Matt Leach kicked a 50-yard field goal for the Gators, who tied it at 17-17 early in the third quarter.
But Jonathan Lowe gave the momentum right back to Mississippi State when he returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown.
“We have a great team,” Lowe said. “We have just had some bad breaks.”
Omarr Conner was 15-of-24 for 158 yards with a 3-yard touchdown pass to McKinley Scott, and the sophomore quarterback showed no signs of the knee injury which kept him out of the Bulldogs’ last two games.
Conner rushed 13 times for 50 yards and ran for a 2-yard touchdown to cap the Bulldogs’ first drive of the game.