Florida vs. Utah score, takeaways: Short-handed No. 14 Utes get revenge as Gators look listless
Utah took care of business at home, while Florida has plenty of questions to answer
No. 14 Utah took down Florida in thorough fashion, 24-11, on Thursday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. The Utes jumped on the Gators early when backup quarterback Bryson Barnes, who started in place of injured star Cam Rising, hit Money Parks for a 70-yard catch-and-run on their first offensive play from scrimmage -- and they never looked back.
Third-string QB Nate Johnson rushed for a 27-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter, and Barnes cruised in from 5 yards out early in the third quarter to push the Utes lead to 24-3. Barnes finished 12 of 18 for 159 yards and a touchdown in Rising's absence. Johnson's impact was mostly felt on the ground where he rushed six times for 45 yards and the one score.
The Gators didn't give up despite the 21-point road deficit. Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, who earned the starting job midway through fall camp, hit Caleb Douglas for a 19-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter that saw Douglas rise over a defender for a Randy Moss-like grab. It was the first Florida touchdown across its last eight quarters of play.
Mertz wrapped up his Florida debut competing 31 of 44 passes for a career-high 333 yards with the lone touchdown pass to Douglas and one critical interception early in the third quarter that led to Barnes' touchdown run three plays later.
Let's take a look at some key takeaways from the game.
Utah's masterful use of QBs
Kyle Whittingham is wildly regarded as a stickler for preparation, and he was incredibly prepared for Florida's defense despite the absence of Rising. He said at halftime that the Utes have come out conservative early in the last few season-openers. So, what did he do? Whittingham came out firing with a backup QB going deep on the first play from scrimmage. After that, all he asked Barnes to do was manage the game. He did it perfectly.
Whittingham put pressure on himself earlier this week when he said Johnson would definitely play in this game regardless of Rising's availability. Johnson can scoot, so Whittingham put him in key spots allowing Johnson to use his legs to slice and dice the Gators defense.
It wasn't a crisp performance by Utah -- not at all. The offense stalled at times, there were points left on the field, and it wasn't nearly as dynamic as it would have been with Rising taking the snaps. Whittingham coached around his absence by going against his tendencies and dominated an SEC opponent. That speaks volumes about his ability to manage games.
Florida wasn't prepared … at all
To call this game sloppy for Florida is an insult to slop. It was downright disgusting. Mind-numbingly brutal penalties consistently ruined red zone drives, slowed momentum and cost the Gators an opportunity to be in this game.
Early in the second quarter -- after getting momentum for the first time all game -- the right side of the offensive line jumped early on fourth-and-1 on the 12-yard line. That led to a missed field goal that kept Utah's lead at 7-3. Later in the quarter, Florida appeared to have momentum again after a stop, but the Gators were called for two players wearing the same jersey (No. 3) on the field during a punt return; that gave the Utes a free first down past midfield. Four plays later, Johnson scored a 27-yard scamper to give the Utes a 14-3 lead.
The miscues continued late in the first half when Florida punter Jeremy Crawshaw shanked punt 21 yards; that led to a 51-yard field goal for Utah with the Gators entering the locker room down 17-3.
Later trailing 24-3 in the second half, Florida appeared to be on its way to the end zone. Running back Trevor Etienne was on his way to converting third-and-6 in the red zone, except the Gators were called for an illegal formation.
It was the first game of the season, and some sloppy play should be expected. But the lack of preparation was laughable -- and it continued a trend from 2022.
Utah's defensive front is filthy
The Utes sacked Mertz five times for a total loss of 47 yards on the night, and nearly all of those sacks came in critical situations. Perhaps more important is the fact that they did it without defensive tackle Junior Tafuna, who was announced as a scratch shortly before the start of the game.
Florida's offensive line -- the Gators were missing a veteran starting center on Thursday -- is a liability. There's no doubt about that. But Utah was able to have its way with Florida's offensive front in key spots. How key were those spots? The Gators finished 1 of 13 on third downs with the one conversion coming in the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach.
Championship-caliber teams cause havoc, win key downs and have depth and versatility up front. Utah checked every box against Florida.
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