Anthony Richardson made sure Billy Napier’s head-coaching debut at Florida was a memorable one.
Richardson, the Gators’ electric sophomore quarterback, made play after play to help Florida upset No. 7 Utah, 29-26, in front of a raucous home crowd in the Swamp.
While Utah was able to limit Richardson to mainly underneath throws in the passing game, he could not be stopped on the ground. Richardson rushed for 104 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries, including the game-winning one-yard plunge with 1:25 to go. He also reeled off a 45-yard touchdown run late in the first half and scored from two yards out in the first quarter.
With Richardson leading the way, the Florida offense racked up a whopping 284 yards on the ground at a clip of nearly 7.5 yards per rush. Every time Utah’s defense needed a stop, Richardson or one of his backs would get just enough to keep drives alive. The most crucial of the bunch was Richardson evading pressure and scampering free for nine yards on a fourth-and-2 from the Utah 26 on Florida’s game-winning drive.
After that Richardson touchdown, though, Utah still had a shot. Cam Rising led the Utah offense all the way down to the Florida 6-yard line. With the clock under 30 seconds, Utah was going for the win but could force overtime with a chip-shot field goal.
Instead, Rising forced one into traffic in the end zone and was intercepted by Amari Burney.
Burney’s interception sealed a thrilling victory for the Gators and a heartbreaker for the Utes, who many projected as potential College Football Playoff contenders entering the season.
This was a chance for Utah to make a huge statement, but the Gators played the spoiler and gave Napier his first SEC victory.
Utah nearly pulled out critical early season victory
Utah was so close to escaping Gainesville with a win.
Like Florida, Utah was led offensively by its rushing attack. Tavion Thomas gutted out 115 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries while Rising had 90 yards on seven runs.
The defending Pac-12 champions led for much of the first half and took a 19-14 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to a Micah Bernard touchdown run.
On the ensuing drive, Richardson led the Gators right down the field to retake the lead when Montrell Johnson Jr. scored from 14 yards out. That touchdown made the lead 20-19, and an incredible individual effort from Richardson on the two-point conversion gave the Gators a 22-19 advantage.
Utah immediately punched back on the next drive, marching 73 yards in 11 plays to go back in front 26-22 with 6:26 to go.
That set the stage for Richardson to win the game. The Gators’ game-winning drive spanned 14 plays, 12 of which were runs. In the process, it was obvious that Napier was trying to milk as much time off the clock as possible.
UF ended up leaving 1:25 for the Utes, but what was initially a brilliant drive from Rising culminated in a disaster.
It was the second time Utah failed in a goal-to-go situation in the second half. Early in the third, with Florida leading 14-13, the Utes were stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Those two goal line failures proved to be mighty costly in the end.
What does this mean for Utah?
This is a tough loss for the Pac-12, a conference fighting a perception problem. Utah is expected to be the best team in the Pac-12, yet could not beat a Florida team expected to be finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC East.
The reality of the situation is a little more nuanced. Florida is a really tough place to play, particularly at night, and Utah went blow for blow with the Gators under a new coaching staff with an elite quarterback. Florida could end up being much better than what the preseason prognosticators expected.
And Utah could go on to have yet another excellent season, but a win in this spot would have gone a long way if Utah finds itself in the CFP hunt a few months from now.
What does this mean for Florida?
It’s an excellent way to kick off Napier’s tenure.
Florida won a combined 29 games from 2018 to 2020 but things went off the rails in 2021, leading to Dan Mullen’s dismissal. The Gators aren’t going to be back in contention for the SEC title overnight, but it’s a positive first sign for Napier’s regime.
Napier built Louisiana into one of the best programs in the Sun Belt. The Ragin’ Cajuns were disciplined and were always physical in the run game. In Year 1 at Florida with Richardson running the show, it looks like the Gators will follow a similar blueprint.