What worked for the Utes in win over Florida? And what didn’t?

Utah 24, Florida 11: After a highlight-reel first offensive play, the Utes slowed on that side of the ball, but an increasingly stingy defense proved plenty good enough to keep the Gators in check Thursday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates an interception as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Last year’s loss in “The Swamp” clearly stuck with the Utah football team, who lamented for a year a defeat that derailed a preseason top-10 ranking and denied them a signature win against an SEC opponent.

They wanted, desired, craved an opportunity to make up for it in Thursday’s season opener against the Gators in front of a Rice-Eccles Stadium-record crowd of 53,644. And they got it with ease, setting aside their questions at quarterback to roll to an efficient, thorough, and sometimes lackluster 24-11 victory.

What the offense lacked in panache (the earliest play notwithstanding), the Utes more than made up for with an increasingly stout defense and a surprisingly effective group of special teamers.

Here are some highlights from the Week 1 win.

A dream start

We knew it wouldn’t be Cam Rising. There was an outside chance it could be Nate Johnson. But the most likely outcome all along was Bryson Barnes starting at quarterback for the Utes. Second career start, facing Florida … had to be some nerves, right?

So naturally, on Utah’s first offensive play, he took the snap, dropped back, stood in the pocket for an eternity and a half, and uncorked a deep bomb that dropped between two trailing but converging Gators defensive backs into the waiting hands of receiver Money Parks, who took it the final 20 yards or so untouched fo a shocking score.

“That’s pretty great — that’s the stuff you talk about when you’re a little kid, ‘Hey man, what if we threw a touchdown on the first play of the game?’” Barnes said afterward. “That’s the type of stuff you think of as kids, so it was great to go out there and actually put it on tape.”

Room for improvement

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) celebrates the win as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Kyle Whittingham said in the lead-up to Thursday that regardless of who started at QB for the Utes, there would be at least a dose of Nate Johnson in the game. It took until the second quarter for him to see the field, but he pretty quickly proved his value by rushing for a first down. After the Utes’ drive stalled just past midfield, Whittingham elected to punt, but Utah got a reprieve when Florida got a foolish substitution penalty — two guys on the field wearing the same jersey number. From there, Barnes and Johnson alternated plays — the former coming up with a big completion to Mikey Matthews, the latter showing off his electric speed and slippery moves, maneuvering past a few defenders for a 27-yard TD run.

The downside to his game? Well, let’s make it downsides. His decision-making as a passer is still clearly a work in progress, as he often makes predetermined reads and tends to throw into tight coverage as a result. Also, he fumbled twice — once behind center and once from shotgun. He recovered both, but that’s an area that clearly needs work.

Putting points on the board

After having two drives that should have yielded points a year ago vs. Florida come up empty (a turnover on downs from the 1, then the game-sealing interception), the Utes stressed the need to get points on those drives this time.

It was looking like Utah was going to have a similar scenario unfold late in the second quarter Thursday, as promising drive fell apart. A trick play should have yielded a walk-in TD, but receiver Devaughn Vele overthrew a wide-open Micah Bernard. Then, Barnes found heralded transfer Mycah Pittman alone with a ton of room to run — but he dropped the pass, leading to fourth down.

They made good on their quest for points, though, when Cole Becker drilled a low, line-drive kick for a 51-yard field goal.

Some big moments, some self-sabotage

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa (57) sacks Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz (15) in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Utah’s defense was a bit up and down early, though the stats will make their second quarter appear pretty dominant. After Florida quarterback Graham Mertz threw for 109 yards in the first quarter, he managed just four in the second. Part of that was the Utes coming up with timely plays, with sacks by Jonah Elliss and Cole Bishop proving especially big.

Just as often, though, it was the Gators hurting themselves with dumb penalties — multiple false starts on one drive, and a delay of game penalty later negating a short-yardage situation.

Game-wreckers asserting themselves

The Utes’ defense did improve as the game went along, particularly exemplified by some huge, momentum-swinging plays in the third quarter.

First, Sione Vaki picked off a tipped pass with the Gators backed up deep on their own side of the field (Barnes subsequently ran in a five-yard score). Later, after Florida moved the ball with ease, thanks in part to a 40-yard pass play, Utah stiffened up and sniffed out a fourth-down screen pass, resulting in a loss. Minutes later, Elliss came up the middle for a 12-yard sack (his second of the game) on fourth down, snuffing out another dive.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes defensive end Jonah Elliss (83) and defensive tackle Keanu Tanuvasa (57) move in to sack Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz (15)]in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators. At Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Elliss was thrilled with his game after missing about half of last season with an injury.

“When you when you miss a game, it takes a huge toll on you mentally and physically,” he said postgame. “Just to be back, it just brings so much joy in my life. It means a lot to me to be back and be out there playing for y’all.”

And now, some bad news

Encouraging as those plays were, there’s no denying the Utes’ defense took a couple of big hits, with star linebacker Karene Reid going out in the first quarter, and then their excellent safety, Bishop, limping off the field in the third.

Bishop appeared fine postgame, saying he’d only suffered some cramping, but Reid’s injury may be more serious. Kyle Whittingham praised the job that transfer Levani Damuni did taking Reid’s place as the nickel linebacker in 4-2 alignments.