Welcome back, Gator football. (Photo credit: Florida Gators Athletics Association)
Chomp on this, fellow SEC fans.
Billy Napier’s Gators are after more than just “so-close” and “almost” losses against top ten teams this season. The Gators are seeking the right to storm onto the field and mob each other in celebration- much like they did after upsetting No. 7 Utah, 29-26, to kick off Napier’s tenure with a bang that put the college football world on notice.
Anthony Richardson led the way by throwing for 168 yards and rushing for over 100 more and three touchdowns, Montrell Johnson atoned for a critical early fumble by scoring Florida’s fourth touchdown and racking up 75 yards on the ground, and the Gators twice erased a fourth quarter deficit to pull off the shocker.
The plain fact that Florida beat Utah- the Utes were merely a 3 point favorite in the Swamp- wasn’t the source of the shock. Florida played Utah pretty evenly most of the way. It was how the end of the game unfolded that elicited the shock.
Utah scored first after Johnson fumbled to kill a promising opening drive, and a lot of things went the Utes’ way after that. Officials missed one blatant holding call on Utah, and on the same play ruled that a Cam Rising pass that hit the ground- the football clearly changed trajectories- was caught. And Florida never did figure out how to stop Utah’s short-game offense, which racked up 446 yards thanks to a pair of lethal tight ends in Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe and a stout running game.
But Florida always had an answer. Florida’s offensive line stood tall. Anthony Richardson looked poised and confident, zinging the ball around with authority when he had to and taking off on big runs every now and then. Richardson hit pay dirt three times with his feet, the second of which- a 45 yard jaunt down the left sideline- gave Florida a 14-13 lead at the break.
The second half started off with a long, punishing Utah drive that ate up six minutes of clock, and seemed certain to end in a Utah touchdown as the Utes got down to the Florida 1. But in a bit of foreshadowing, the Gator defense proved that even though it couldn’t make very many plays, it could make the most important ones. Kyle Whittingham elected to go for it on fourth and goal from the one, and Tavion Thomas was turned away.
Utah would score on its next drive, but then the Gator offense answered back to start the fourth quarter. Richardson orchestrated an eight-play, 75 yard drive that Johnson capped off with the go-ahead score. That put Florida up 20-19, and Napier chose to go for two so that Utah couldn’t win with a field goal. Richardson then made what was an underrated candidate for the title of biggest play of the game: schooling former Gator teammate Mohamoud Diabate to avoid a sack, and then hitting a wide open Ja’Quavion Fraziars in the corner of the end zone to make it 22-19.
Again, Utah answered back. An 11-play, 75 yard drive ended with Thomas punching it in to give Utah a 26-22 lead with 6:26 to go.
And again, Florida answered back. Thanks in part to Trevor Etienne (who had a breakout game of his own) recovering his own fumble on a big run and Richardson converting a fourth and two, Florida then drove 75 yards for what turned out to be the game-winning score, with Richardson plowing in on a second and goal from the one. That adjusted the scoreboard to read 29-26 with a minute and a half to go.
But in a game that felt like the last team with the ball was going to win, it appeared as though Florida had left Utah with too much time. Rising immediately drove Utah down into Florida territory with a couple of quick hitters, then into the red zone with a big run, and then to the Florida 6 with another out route to Kincaid. By this point, the clock showed :22 left- plenty of time for Utah, even without timeouts.
Then Rising made his only mistake of the night. And on the converse, the Florida defense stood tall when it needed to the most.
Kincaid ran a quick route into the end zone, but fell down. Rising thought he could hit him anyway, even as he was in a sitting position. Instead, Amari Burney dove in front of the pass and snatched it in between the blue paint of the “T” and the “O” in the “Gators” wordmark in the end zone. Checkmate.
And one knee later, and Napier’s Gator football team had a program-defining, culture-stamping, hey-world-look-at-us victory.
There is, to be sure, plenty for this Florida team to work on. Utah certainly has a solid running game, but Florida’s run defense could stand to improve dramatically if the Gators want to be a real player in the SEC East. Tackling was an issue for Florida throughout the game (although to be fair to this Florida team, it usually is in game one). And ball security- a fumble killed Florida’s first drive and nearly killed their final drive and ended the game- needs to be tightened up.
But if nothing else, this Gator team showed a combination of three things that will bode well for them moving forward. One, the offensive line did its job. Two, Anthony Richardson looked like the leader that Gator fans have been hyping him up to be. And three, the defense- while not great- made the plays it absolutely had to make.
And in a division race in which Florida has been counted out before conference play has even begun? Maybe, just maybe, that cocktail will be enough to give this Gator football team a puncher’s chance.
Just ask the soon-to-be-formerly seventh ranked team in the country about that.