Even without two-time all-Pac-12 quarterback Cameron Rising, No. 14 Utah had little trouble taking care of Florida in its 2023 opener.
Utah used the quarterback combination of Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson and a swarming defense to overwhelm the Gators, 24-11, on Thursday to start the season 1-0. It was also a bit of revenge for the Utes after a heartbreaking Week 1 loss to the Gators in Gainesville last fall.
There had been speculation about Rising’s availability after he suffered a serious knee injury in last year’s Rose Bowl. With Rising still on the mend, Barnes, a walk-on, got the start and made his presence known from his very first pass.
Instead of playing it safe with a reserve quarterback, the Utes went with a play-action deep ball on their first play from scrimmage. Barnes found Money Parks behind the defense for a 70-yard touchdown to send Rice-Eccles Stadium into a frenzy.
— Utah Football (@Utah_Football) September 1, 2023
The Barnes-to-Parks connection gave the Utes a 7-0 lead — a lead they would never relinquish thanks in large part to a lengthy list of miscues from Billy Napier's Gators.
Florida committed procedure penalties on three separate third or fourth-and-1 plays, including one early in the second quarter when Utah’s lead was 7-3.
The Gators, after brushing off the early Utah touchdown, strung together a nice drive led by new quarterback Graham Mertz, a Wisconsin transfer. Florida got all the way to Utah’s 9-yard line and kept the offense on the field for a fourth-and-1, only to commit a false start penalty. From there, Napier, the second-year UF head coach, sent out his field goal unit and kicker Adam Mihalek shanked a 31-yard try.
On the ensuing possession, the Florida defense forced a Utah punt only to give the ball back to the Utes in embarrassing fashion. When the Gators lined up to field the punt, they had two players on the field wearing No. 3. That’s a substitution infraction penalty, and it gave Utah an automatic first down.
Four plays later, the speedy Johnson broke off a 27-yard touchdown run to give Utah a 14-3 lead with 7:50 remaining in the first half.
Utah goes up 14-3 on the Gators 👀 pic.twitter.com/moHBGcGJLw
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 1, 2023
Florida doomed by self-inflicted mistakes
More Florida miscues ensued from there.
A 21-yard shanked punt from Jeremy Crawshaw set Utah up for a field goal that gave the Utes a 17-3 halftime lead. Early in the third quarter, Florida freshman Eugene Wilson mistakenly fielded a punt inside his own 10-yard line, backing up Mertz and the Gators offense near their own end zone. Three plays later, Mertz was intercepted on a ball that deflected off Ricky Pearsall’s hands.
The interception gave Utah the ball at Florida’s 11-yard line. Three plays later, Barnes ran it in from five yards out to increase Utah’s lead to 24-3.
Florida’s misery didn’t end there. The Gators’ next drive ended in the red zone thanks in part to another ill-timed penalty. This time, it was an illegal formation on third-and-1 from the Utah 13. A turnover on downs soon followed.
Florida did get into the end zone via a Mertz touchdown pass on its fourth trip to the red zone, but it was too little, too late as Utah was able to get another fourth-down stop and then run out the fourth quarter clock to seal the win.
In the end, Florida committed nine penalties, mustered only 13 rushing yards, allowed five sacks and went a miserable 1-of-13 on third-down and 2-of-5 on fourth down in the loss. The Gators' defense played pretty well, but the miscues on offense and special teams were too much to overcome.
Utah finished the game with only 270 yards of offense, 70 of which came on that first play. After that initial long touchdown, the Utes averaged only 3.8 yards per play, but their red-zone effectiveness and ability to capitalize on Florida's mistakes ultimately made a huge difference in the final outcome.
What does this mean for Utah?
It's a great way for Utah to start the season. Beating an SEC team is one thing, but to do it with multiple reserve quarterbacks is another thing.
It's going to be a slog to maneuver this early season schedule before Rising can return — presumably for conference play. The Utes will go to Baylor next week in another difficult non-conference matchup before hosting FCS Weber State in Week 3. This is a confidence builder for the Utes' young quarterbacks if Rising can't play next weekend in Waco, but replicating this kind of performance on the road is going to be a challenge.
Utah wasn't able to run the ball much, and that's a bit of a concern. But the Utes can lean on their defense to stay in games, and that may be the recipe for head coach Kyle Whittingham until Rising can return.
What's next for Florida?
It wasn't all bad for Florida. The defense, after that first play, played a pretty solid ballgame. Mertz showed some signs of life in a much more interesting passing game than the one he played in at Wisconsin, but the repeated self-inflicted mistakes do not reflect positively on Napier to start his second season in Gainesville.
Florida's ineffectiveness on third down was glaring, as was the inability to keep Mertz upright. The Gators also really struggled to run the ball, and the team's pass-catching options did not impress.
The Gators went 6-7 in Napier's first season, and this was not a positive way to start his second year in charge. Next week, Florida gets a visit from McNeese State before a visit from No. 12 Tennessee in Week 3. There's a lot to clean up before the Vols come to town.