A first week game in college football lived up to its bill Saturday night as Florida edged out No. 7 Utah 29-26 at The Swamp to begin Gators coach Billy Napier’s tenure with a statement win over defending champion Pac12. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson put in place The Gators led with two yards left with 1:25 left before Utah QB star Amari Burnie blocked Cameron Rising in the end zone with 17 seconds left to seal the victory.
In a game that went back and forth all night, Richardson emerged as a star by playing the clutch with his arm and legs over and over. Beginning his career first in his hometown of Gainesville, Florida, the sophomore finished 17 of 24 passes for 168 yards, adding 103 dash yards and three career touchdowns. In addition to moving ahead in the final two minutes, a separate Richardson 45-yard touchdown in the second quarter put Florida ahead 14-13 to enter the break.
Rising produced a great outing of his own but couldn’t lead Utes to a game-related field goal or a potential landing game winning over the final drive. He threw a close interception early in the final possession before Bernie grabbed a Rising pass from inside the 6-yard line in the penultimate play of the game.
Florida running back Montreal Johnson Jr. added a 77-yard sprint on 12 carriers and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, reclaiming itself after a costly stumble in the Gators’ first drive of the game. Freshman RB Trevor Etienne blasted for 64 yards in five rounds in the first game of his career. Richardson also had help from Ricky Pearsall, wide receiver of the Arizona State transfer, who had four passes for 67 yards to lead all of the Gators’ players.
Utah entered the season with their college football playoff ambitions, but those who were faced with an early threat at the hands of a hungry Florida side that seemed poised to set the record 6-7 last season went past as Napier’s reign began. Napier became the first coach in program history to lead the Gators to victory over a ranked opponent in his first game as Florida continued the nation’s longest winning streak with a win in their 33rd consecutive opener.
What did we learn from the Gators’ dramatic victory over Utes? Let’s split three takeaways from Saturday night’s game.
Richardson is a star
Johnson and Etienne made substantive contributions on the ground, Pearsall shone on his debut, but Richardson was Florida’s top player. After fighting to get started last season with Emory Jones, who has since moved to Arizona, Richardson looked like one of the potential stars for the 2022 season. Not surprisingly, some had predicted him to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Although his three touchdown passes were notable, particularly the 45-yard line down the left sideline, Richardson’s two-point conversion pass with 12:48 left might have played the game. Richardson eluded a pair of pass strikers with a fake pump that allowed him enough time to find Ja’Quavion Fraziars wide open in the corner of the end zone to put the Gators ahead 22-19 after Johnson touched down.
Without the two-point conversion, just a field goal might have been enough to put Utah ahead in the final seconds of the game, and Rising likely never took the shot into the end zone that blocked Bernie to seal the match.
Utah’s new roof
Over the holiday season, Utah was given the Pac-12’s best hope of overcoming a CFP drought dating back to 2016. After going toe-to-toe with Ohio State in losing the Rose Bowl to crown the 2021 season, Utes returned 14 starters to one of the most iconic programs in The country is under coach Kyle Whittingham, who kicked off his 18th year with the program on Saturday night.
While the loss in the first week doesn’t completely eliminate Utah from the CFP feud, it does remove any margin for error and makes the task particularly daunting. The Utes started 1-2 last season with a loss to BYU and San Diego State and could still win the Pac-12 but finished 11th in the CFP rankings, far from truly competitive.
With Oregon, USC and Washington all storming the new head coaches, Utah still has an excellent chance of repeating as the conference champions. Again, though, there’s little benefit in being skeptical of the favorite Pac-12 when it comes to the playoff picture. With Utah losing, the conference is 1-8 against SEC teams in Week 1 over the last 11 seasons. Pac-12 teams are ranked at seven of those eight losses.
Redemption is sweet
Florida’s defense looked to be improving under new co-coordinators Patrick Tony and Sean Spencer after Todd Grantham’s lackluster stint in the role under former coach Dan Mullen. However, Utah had consistent success finding tight end Brant Kwethe, who finished nine catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Oftentimes, it was Bernie who was matched by Kuithe, a three-time All-Pac 12 performer. However, any shortcomings from the senior full-back’s performance were more than atone for his interception to save the match. The 5 year old student will be remembered as a champion due to the diving obstacle with the game at stake.
Burnie isn’t the only one who redeemed himself on Saturday. Johnson, whose stumbles in driving the game eventually brought Utah down for the first time, not only caught the ball for the rest of the competition, but made the most of his touches. The move, which followed Napier from Louisiana to Florida, was the lead rider for the Gators with 89 yards and a point in the evening.
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