Florida football score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson breaks out as Gators oust No. 7 Utah

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 4, 2022
Florida football score, takeaways: Anthony Richardson breaks out as Gators oust No. 7 Utah

Image Credit: UAA

If the Florida Gators are only going to go so far as Anthony Richardson takes them this season, perhaps the finish line is a bit further down the road than initially believed. That appeared to be the case Saturday night as Florida overcame a stellar effort from the No. 7 Utah Utes with a 29-26 upset victory inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Playing in front of a record 90,799 fans for a home opener in The Swamp, these Gators were clearly motivated to make a statement in their first game under head coach Billy Napier. While some of Florida’s familiar flaws reared their ugly heads in the game, a confidence and poise the program has not shown in years allowed the Gators to stay within themselves and make key plays to ice the game.

Making his first career start in The Swamp as his hometown family and friends watched from the stands, Richardson was stellar, completing 17 of 24 passes for a career-high 168 yards, rushing for 106 yards and scoring a career-high three touchdowns on the ground. The third of those scores came with 1:25 remaining as Richardson rumbled into the end zone from 1 yard out, completing a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ate nearly 5 minutes off the clock before ending with what became the game-winning touchdown.

Richardson’s effort, coupled with a game-sealing interception off Utah QB Cameron Rising from senior linebacker Amari Burney in the end zone, led Florida to its 33rd consecutive win in a home opener, extending the longest active streak in the nation. It also helped Napier become the eighth straight Gators coach to win his home opener and the first in program history to beat a ranked opponent in his opening game with the team.

What went down Saturday night in The Swamp as Florida picked up one of its most impactful wins in years over Utah? Let’s take a look with some takeaways from the game.

1. Richardson’s impact goes beyond the box score: It’s one thing to look at the statistics and appreciate Richardson’s production, but even more important was his decision making in critical situations. This was best exemplified by his deft play while converting a 2-point try that appeared to be blown up early in the fourth quarter. After sophomore running back Montrell Jordan Jr. punched in a touchdown to put the Gators up 20-19, Napier decided to go for two. Richardson took the snap but was immediately met with pressure; rather than toss the ball up as he might have a year ago, he pump faked, spun out of the pressure and calmly hit sophomore wide receiver Ja’Quavion Fraziars in the back corner of the end zone to give Florida a needed 3-point lead. Given the ultimate margin of victory, that play helped ensure Utah — which failed on its own 2-point try on its prior score — would have to go for a touchdown if it wanted to win rather than tie on the game’s final possession.

That was one of many takedowns Richardson avoided in a sack-less performance. He also displayed immense patience in the pocket, only pulling the ball down to run when pressure got too great or a play been had extended too long. That’s how he executed a 45-yard touchdown run down the left sideline to end the first half, giving Florida a 14-13 advantage entering the locker rooms. His comfort in the offense was obvious with little question that he put in the very work Napier demanded when it came to learning the playbook and controlling the huddle.

2. The pieces fit together: The Gators may not have put together an uber-successful season last year, but they nevertheless had talented offensive playmakers that needed to be replaced this offseason. Not only did Napier find the right pieces, he put them in position to succeed right away. Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr., who joined Napier as a transfer from Louisiana, fumbled on the first possession of the game — an unfathomable miscue that Utah immediately capitalized upon with a touchdown, putting Florida in the early hole — but saw the coaching staff remain confident in his ability.

Johnson repaid the with a clean sheet the rest of the way as he picked up 90 total yards on 13 touches with a fourth-quarter score. While a ball bounced the wrong way for Johnson, it bounced the right way for freshman RB Trevor Etienne, who recovered a fumble of his own late in the game while flashing massively in his collegiate debut. Etienne averaged 12.8 yards on five carries for 64 yards on the ground, but he appeared to come an inch or two away from breaking a couple of those runs for long touchdowns. His quick reactions and explosive style clearly mimicked those of his brother, Travis Etienne, and the Gators harnessing that ability could create a running game even better than expected.

In his first game after transferring from Arizona State, junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall was Florida’s top pass catcher. He clearly had a rapport with Richardson while hauling in four balls for 67 yards, though sophomore Xzavier Henderson had his moments as well with 41 yards on six catches. While the Gators did not necessarily have a breakout offensive performance, it was clear they have enough around Richardson to get the job done from a playmaking standpoint.

3. Napier rakes it in: If Scared Money Don’t Make Money, as Florida fans have heard ad nauseum over the last eight months, Napier brought in some coin Saturday night in The Swamp. In other words, despite the pressure of the moment and multiple opportunities to play it safe, Napier instead played it smart with risks that paid off time and again. In particular, two fourth-down calls let to conversions in key situations.

The first came following that Johnson turnover with Florida on the Utah 16-yard line while trailing 7-0 late in the first quarter. The Gators could have settled for a short field goal to mitigate the early damage; instead, Napier called a timeout, calmed down his quarterback and called a perfect play with Johnson catching a 14-yard pass that setup a 2-yard Richardson touchdown to tie the game.

Trailing 26-22 late in the fourth quarter, Florida faced the same down and distance after Napier purposely called a third-down run knowing he was in four-down territory. Rather than run a play and save his timeouts in case the Utes answered, he went the analytical route, ran the clock and called a timeout with 1:53 remaining. Try as they might, the Gators were unable to stay inbounds to run the clock further on their next few plays, but the plan was sound. Florida ultimately took the lead and held on to win.

Napier lived up to his own mantra. When it mattered the most, he did not coach scared — and it paid off. That will not always be the case, and the Gators almost gave away the game Saturday night, but as an opening salvo, it was difficult not to be impressed by Napier.

4. The more things change … Beyond Johnson’s early fumble, Florida frustrated in multiple areas all too familiar to fans. Most notable were the Gators’ untimely penalties, which included two holdings on kickoff returns and multiple false starts at inopportune situations offensively. It did not help that the Pac-12 referees seemingly refused to call blatant holdings on Utah, but Florida still committed seven penalties for 38 yards that made it more difficult to execute the game plan.

Furthermore, while the defense was stout in the first half, it came close to total collapse over the latter 30 minutes with the same problems rearing their ugly heads. The Gators held the Utes to 2 of 6 on third down to start before allowing 6 of 7 conversions in the second half. Florida outrushed Utah 147-59 early before giving up 171 such yards late, including 103 in the third quarter alone. The Utes charged down the field time and again in the second half with the Gators looking extremely soft up the middle.

That’s not to say Florida’s defense did not ultimately do its job. A goal-line stand to open the third quarter — with three consecutive stops — was crucial, and not only did Burney intercept the final pass of the game, that turnover came just a few plays after redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller nearly grabbed one himself to ice the contest earlier. The Gators also did a great job tackling players inbounds on their final defensive stand, but while they came out on the right side of this particular coin toss, the bend-but-don’t-break defense they displayed may well snap next time such a situation comes around.

5. Odds and ends: Florida is now 2-0 all-time against Utah with the teams last meeting in 1977 … the Gators improved to 7-4-1 all-time against Pac-12 opponents (6-1 in The Swamp, 7-2-1 in the regular season) … Florida has won 33 straight home openers dating back to 1989, the longest active streak in the nation … Napier is the eighth straight UF coach to win his opener and the first ever to beat a ranked opponent in his first game … Napier has beaten ranked opponents to start two of his last three seasons … Utah, at No. 7, was the highest-ranked opponent Florida has faced at home to start a season since 1969 … the Gators are now 3-0 when opening against a ranked team in The Swamp with the Utes being the highest-ranked such victory … Utah was the first nonconference Power Five team to visit Florida field for an opener since 1990 … UF improved to 163-32 in The Swamp since 1990, boasting the second-best home winning mark (.836) nationally in taht span … the Gators are 15-2 against nonconference opponents since 2018 … Florida is 7-10 against ranked opponents and 5-7 against top 10 teams since 2018 … the Gators have scored 24+ points in 35 of their last 43 games … Florida has now scored in 433 consecutive games, an NCAA record

6. What it means? For one, the Gators should feel confident coming off a historic home victory. By the time Tuesday rolls around, Florida will likely find itself in the AP Top 25 after not starting the season in the poll for the first time since 2018. The Gators also had an immense list of high school prospects visiting The Swamp for the opener. Given Florida’s tremendous surge on the recruiting trail late in the summer, there should be no doubt that such an experience will make an impact on those players as they make their decisions over the next three-plus months. Most importantly, for a season in which expectations were rather moderate, Napier started the Gators with such a bang that hopes will now be raised. Florida must remember that this is still Year 1 of a relative rebuild, and a tough schedule remains ahead.

7. What’s next? Florida continues its three-game homestand by hosting No. 20 Kentucky next Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. The Wildcats defeated the Gators 20-13 last season, their second such win in four seasons after Florida dominated the series with 31 straight wins from 1987-2017. UK is much improved under head coach Mark Stoops and won its opener 37-13 over Miami (Ohio), but if UF can open under Napier with not one but two straight 25 wins, it will be quite a development.

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