There are no more moral victories for Utah football. The Utes let opportunity slip away in loss to Florida

Analysis of No. 7 Utes loss to the Gators, 29-26, in a game that featured a late Cam Rising interception.

Gainesville, Fla. • Cam Rising didn’t have much to say late Saturday night, but he didn’t have to. The look on his face said it all.

Emitting a combination of anger, frustration, and despondence, the University of Utah’s fifth-year junior quarterback was 15 minutes removed from throwing a back-breaking interception in the end zone that helped seal a 29-26 University of Florida win at The Swamp.

This was after the Utah defense had no answer for Gators star quarterback Anthony Richardson over four quarters, and after the Utes’ offense sputtered at times, and after they trailed on three different occasions. In spite of it all, Rising took his team to the doorstep of not only a win, but to the cusp of making anything legitimately possible this fall for these Utes.

Rising is going to win a lot of games this fall. Utah is going to remain a prohibitive favorite to at least get to the Pac-12 championship game. The dream of a College Football Playoff is not gone, but Rising is going to want that throw back.

He knew it when he walked into that postgame press conference late Saturday night, even if he didn’t say it.

He didn’t need to.

The interception

Utah’s defense did the offense no favors on Saturday night, especially in the fourth quarter.

On what turned out to be the game-winning drive, Florida converted a pair of third downs, then after Richardson picked up three yards on an up-the-middle keeper to set up a fourth-and-2, the electric redshirt freshman effortlessly scampered for nine.

Richardson’s 2-yard keeper out of the shotgun on second-and-goal gave the ball back to Utah, trailing 29-26, with 1:25 left and two timeouts.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid (86) remains in the end zone after Florida linebacker Amari Burney made a game-saving interception near the end of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

Rising to Devaughn Vele for 10, Rising to Vele for 14 more, Rising on a 29-yard scramble on third-and-7 down to the Florida 19-yard line with 36 seconds left. At that point, this felt like it was going to happen. This was going to be Rising’s defining moment as a Ute. Utah may not have had an answer for Richardson, but the Florida defense was equally porous for huge chunks of the second half in trying to deal with Rising, Brant Kuithe and Tavion Thomas.

On first-and-goal from the 6, Rising missed Vele over the middle. The second-down snap came out of the shotgun. Rising waited for things to develop, kept waiting, then tried to squeeze one into a tight end zone space. He was looking for Dalton Kincaid, but Gators linebacker Amari Burney, who spent his night getting destroyed in coverage by Kuithe, made a terrific diving interception. Richardson trotted back out, took a knee, and Florida had itself a home upset.

Rising had a good night. He finished 22-for-32 for 216 yards and a first-quarter touchdown pass to Kuithe. His second half was markedly better than his first half, which featured some accuracy issues, specifically on the final drive before halftime as he missed a couple of open receivers as the offense came away with no points.

Kyle Whittingham firmly, rightfully defended Rising’s play. The next time Whittingham and Rising speak to the media will be Monday. It will be interesting to hear how this play, not to mention Rising’s night, is viewed with the benefit of decompressing for 36 hours.

The goal line stand

Utah left points out there on multiple occasions, but getting to the 1-yard line and coming away with nothing will sting more than anything else.

The Utes did not run the ball well in the first half, but they got going on the opening drive of the third quarter, running the ball 10 times in 11 plays, most of it very straightforward.

On second-and-goal from the 1, Thomas tripped at the line of scrimmage and lost two yards. Now facing third-and-goal from 3, a Rising keeper out of the shotgun appeared to cross the goal line, but he was ruled down at the 1. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig went back to Thomas on fourth-and-goal, but he was stopped for no gain and a turnover on downs on a play that went to review.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah coach Kyle Whittingham reacts after watching a replay on the stadium video monitor during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

The third-down play was a point of emphasis postgame. Rising was adamant that he had crossed the plane. To a question centering around whether or not there was consideration to trying to get the refs to look at it, Whittingham explained it away in part by saying that nine times out 10, calling a timeout in hopes of a review is a waste of a timeout, and rarely does something get overturned.

Fair enough. That explanation likely has something to do with Whittingham’s affinity for the analytical part of the game.

Utah was officially 4-for-6 on red zone opportunities. One miss was this turnover on downs, the other was the Rising interception. Whittingham does not consider field goals as red zone wins. Jordan Noyes booted two on Saturday, one from 43 yards out and another from 31, which was a red zone chance. That particular drive stalled at the 8 as Utah lined up to go for it on fourth-and-3 before taking a 5-yard delay of game penalty.

No moral victories

Whittingham opened his postgame media session by noting that there are no moral victories and that his program is past that.

Whittingham is 100% correct, there are no moral victories at this level of the sport. Given where his program has been lately, yes, Utah should be beyond any back-patting. They were the No. 7 team in the country, especially walking into The Swamp as a road-betting favorite. Painting yourself as David in a David vs. Goliath matchup doesn’t work once you win your conference and are favored to win it again.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah fans remain in the stands after the team's loss to Florida in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

But listening back to what Whittingham said over about nine minutes with the media, some of it did come off as moral victory-adjacent. The problem here is that, and Whittingham admitted as much, he was shell-shocked, having just come off the field after an emotionally draining, gut-wrenching loss. You really have to take what’s being said in those moments with a few grains of salt, because frankly, guys are not in the right headspace to be answering questions 15 minutes after a game.

Saturday was not a moral victory. Saturday was a missed opportunity. A missed opportunity to stamp yourself as a CFP contender, a missed opportunity for increased national respect, of which Utah generally does not get enough, and a missed opportunity to get a win in one of the nation’s toughest road environments.

It shouldn’t just be OK.

Recalibrating what this season could be

An unbeaten Power Five champion is not getting left out of the College Football Playoff, which is what a lot of Saturday was about.

Had Utah won this game, there still would have been a lot of hurdles to clear, but it would have cleared a major one. With the exception of USC’s Caleb Williams, the Utes are not going to see another quarterback with the tools that Richardson has, nor are they going to see this type of speed and athleticism all over the place.

Unbeaten is now off the table, so what are we looking at for the remainder of the season? If you believe Utah can still get to the CFP, that is not unreasonable, but the margin for error is now gone. In the eight years the CFP has been in existence, a 1-loss Power Five champion has only been left out once. On paper, Utah is capable of running the table to get to 12-1, but no Pac-12 team has registered an unbeaten slate since Oregon in 2010, when it was still the Pac-10.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah running back Micah Bernard (2) celebrates in the end zone after rushing for a 7-yard touchdown during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

Recent history dictates that Utah will have another hiccup and a second loss, which would take the CFP off the table. Even assuming that, this Utes team showed enough on Saturday after months of projecting to have you believe that a second straight Rose Bowl berth is reasonable and, if things around them break right, the CFP, while unlikely, is still on the table.

Saturday was not a good day for the Pac-12. Utah, the league’s great CFP hope for 2022, lost, which came hours after a more unlikely CFP hope, Oregon, got its doors blown off by Georgia in Atlanta.

USC? USC looked like an offensive juggernaut in blowing out Rice at the Coliseum. I reserve judgment until the Trojans play somebody real.

Other things on my mind

• Utah changing its pregame routine felt odd in the moment. The Utes came out for early warmups, which ended with them in helmets. They retreated back to the locker room, and never came back out in full pads for more warmups, as is customary.

• The Jonah Ellis forced fumble on Florida’s opening drive was huge. The Gators were on the move quickly with Richardson at the wheel, but that play shifted momentum as RJ Hubert scooped it, went 47 yards, and gave Utah a short field.

• Whittingham revealed postgame that Hubert is only practicing part-time in an effort to keep him healthy and available, Hubert’s last two seasons have been marred by injury, but it was good to see him looking spry and making plays Saturday.

• Brant Kuithe caught nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown on 13 targets. He was outstanding and Rising was not shying away from what was working. Only three wide receivers — Vele, Solomon Enis and Money Parks — were credited with targets. I’m stuck there between thinking Rising needs to spread it around, and simply going with what works until the defense stops it, which Florida did not do.

• The Swamp is a real-deal road atmosphere with a crowd that did not relent for three hours. Just never, It was deafening to the point my ears were ringing as I walked downstairs for postgame stuff. Kuithe said the environment was not a factor. I don’t believe that at all.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Florida running back Trevor Etienne (7) leaps over Utah safety Cole Bishop (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

• Dan Mullen not starting Anthony Richardson last season feels baffling based on what we just watched. Richardson might get that team to eight or nine wins, which would be a nice accomplishment in Billy Napier’s first season as head coach.

• Morgan Scalley’s defense gave up 451 yards of total offense, while Florida was 7-for-12 on third down and 2-for-2 on fourth down. Not good enough, and there are things to address, but the good news is they don’t have to see Richardson for another year.

• Don’t be shocked if Utah remains in the AP Top 10 come Tuesday (the AP is holding off on a new poll until Clemson-Georgia Tech gets played Monday night). Tough to penalize any team for a loss in that environment, and given how this game played out, I doubt many voters are willing to write the Utes off.

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