Gainesville, Fla. • The University of Utah defense was perpetually one play away Saturday night against the University of Florida.
It never got that big stop.
The offense almost bailed everyone out.
On second-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Utah’s Cam Rising was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Amari Burney, sealing the Gators’ 29-26 win in front of 90,799 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. That is the largest season-opening crowd in the history of The Swamp.
Rising appeared to try to squeeze a pass into traffic as Burney made a diving catch on a pass that was intended for tight end Dalton Kincaid.
“I’m just not very happy about it, period, that’s it,” a clearly upset Rising said after putting together a strong second half to finish 22 for 32 for 217 yards and a touchdown.
Added Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham: “I haven’t talked to him about that specific play, but it wasn’t his best throw of the night, I’m sure he wishes he had it back. He played really well tonight. He ran the ball effectively, he threw the ball effectively. He’s our guy. That’s not going to change.”
Rising turned in an effective night after a rough start, while Brant Kuithe, a fifth-year senior and a three-time All-Pac-12 tight end, had nine catches for 105 yards and a score
With the Utes (0-1) nursing a 26-22 lead, the Gators’ Anthony Richardson-led offense went 75 yards in 14 plays, picking up a fourth-down conversion along the way, as the electric redshirt freshman quarterback’s 1-yard keeper gave the Gators a 29-26 lead with 1:25 to play.
Richardson finished with three rushing touchdowns, while accounting for 272 total yards of offense in what amounted to a national coming-out party for the Gainesville native and former five-star recruit.
“He’s a terrific player and if they can keep him healthy, they’re going to win a bunch of games, in my opinion,” said Whittingham, who on Monday compared Richardson’s skill set to that of Cam Newton.
A 4-yard touchdown run by Tavion Thomas had given Utah a 26-22 lead with 6:26 to play. That score capped an 11-play, 73-yard drive that ate up 6:33 of clock. The Utes were 3-for-3 on third down on the drive, including the Thomas touchdown, and a timely 14-yard completion from Rising to Kuithe on third-and-6.
The second half began with Utah trying to impose its will on a bigger, physical Florida defensive line at the goal line.
The Gators weren’t interested.
Trailing, 14-13, the Utes, a run-first, often-smashmouth outfit, got stuffed on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, third-and-goal from the 3, and fourth-and-goal at the 1. Rising appeared to cross the goal line on third down, then Thomas appeared to cross on fourth down, but no matter.
That was Utah’s best drive to that point, but after the defense got off the field on the ensuing Florida possession, Rising and Co. came up with something better, this one ending in points and the lead.
A nine-play, 89-yard drive featured Rising outrunning several defenders for 26 yards down to the 7, followed by a Micah Bernard touchdown run on the next play. Utah’s two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful, leaving it with a 19-14 lead going to the fourth quarter.
Florida spent the first half in full control in front of a full-throated, raucous crowd to watch first-year head coach Billy Napier’s debut. Had it not been for defensive end Jonah Elliss forcing a fumble on the first drive of the game, deep in Gators territory, RJ Hubert returning it 47 yards, and the Utes scoring off a short field, they may have been down more at halftime than just 14-13.
Richardson’s 45-yard touchdown scamper down the left sideline late in the second half was mostly accomplished without a Utes defender within 20 yards of the electric dual-threat redshirt freshman. That play, which gave Florida that halftime lead with 1:42 before the break, was a microcosm of Utah’s struggles to that point.
The defense yielded 248 total first-half yards, a number that included four plays of at least 14 yards, all of it coming on the ground. On Florida’s first scoring drive, it went 3-for-4 on third down, then picked up a fourth-and-2 from the Utah 16-yard line before Richardson’s 2-yard plunge on first-and-goal tied the game at 7 late in the first quarter.
Rising was 10 for 16 for 75 yards in the first half, but was mired by accuracy issues in critical spots, namely missing open receivers on consecutive plays on Utah’s final first-half drive, which ended in a punt.