Gordon Monson: Utah football’s new feature film: The Rise of the Replacements

The Utes are off and running (and throwing) thanks to standout performances from quarterbacks Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) and quarterback Nate Johnson (13), celebrate with team mates after they light the U, after the Utes defeated the Florida Gators. At Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

Cam Rising stood on the sideline on Thursday night, ball cap on, occasionally looking around at the scene at Rice-Eccles, taking it all in. More definitively, he peered out toward the field as his offense, the one that once was his, did its business against the Florida Gators.

The quarterback answered the biggest question hanging over Utah football since camp began and that leaned right up against the edge of season’s first kick, the matter of whether he would play. He did not, owing to a fact that everyone was plainly aware of and another that was left unspoken: 1) his troubled wheel was yet on the mend, and 2) Utah coaches were convinced the Utes could beat the Gators without him.

Facts checked and checked.

The second was substantiated by the proof that carried the night — the final numbers shining into it: Utah 24, Florida 11.

What Rising saw was what everyone saw, an opener that had ups and downs and all arounds, some of what was expected and surprises, too. The primary takeaway was what sounded more like an action movie than a football event — The Rise of the Replacements.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) throws the ball during halftime as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

And that had as much to do with the defense as the offense. Kyle Whittingham said it like this: “We had eight to 10 guys who picked up the slack for guys who were missing.”

That depth is an indication of how far Utah football has come in recent years.

Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson may not have been able to replicate and duplicate You-Know-Who’s presence individually, but together they were a thrill a minute, at least over some minutes — Barnes mostly through the air, Johnson on the ground. Their stats spelled out like this: Barmes completed 12 of 18 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown, with another running score, and Johnson speed-churned for 45 yards and one TD.

“It felt good,” Johnson said.

It looked good for a season-opening game where nobody could be sure exactly what would unfold.

Those who thought Utah would go conservative without Rising might have been shocked by the first play from scrimmage, executed by Barnes, who threw a 70-yard TD to Money Parks.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Nate Johnson (13) runs for a touchdown in football action between the Utah Utes and the Florida Gators at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

From there, OC Andy Ludwig, even with his plan for quarterback rotation, poured trust all over Barnes, like a farmer pouring cool mud over the head of a hog. Speaking of which, the kid who grew up working day and night on a pig farm in Utah’s backcountry shouldn’t have been — nor was he — frightened by any regular-old defense, let alone the Gators’ D, which was breaking in new players here, there, everywhere.

Still, there were times when Barnes was pressured and other times when Utah’s offensive line struggled to grade road for Micah Bernard (45 yards) and Ja’Quinden Jackson, the Texas transfer running back who sped for 531 yards and nine touchdowns last season for the Utes. Thursday night, he gained just 15.

As for the Ute defense, much like their partners on attack, playing without significant players lost to injury, including in live action team leader Karene Reid, who was dinged in the game’s opening moments and subsequently escorted to the locker room for what was thought to be a concussion check, there were impressive moments and vulnerable ones. Much more of the former than the latter.

Whittingham called his defense’s performance “the story of the game.”

After Utah’s score early in the first quarter, Florida drove 65 yards for a field goal, giving temporary belief that the Gators would challenge the Utes.

Nah. They would not. Not really.

Vulnerabilities reared up now and again, the Gators seeing success with misdirection, knocking Utah off-balance at times. That tendency led to what might have been another Florida field goal, except a short kick was missed near the top of the second quarter. Other mistakes made it easier for the Utes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs for a touchdown as the Utah Utes host the Florida Gators, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023.

When Johnson entered, he attempted to fire up Utah’s tepid run game. That try was initially stunted by a Johnson fumble, which he recovered, but on fourth down, a penalty on Florida preserved the drive, a move that was continued as Whittingham rotated quarterbacks: Now you see Barnes, next you see Johnson, then Barnes, next Johnson, who finished the drive with a swift-and-nifty 27-yard dash for a 14-3 lead midway through the second period. The first-half scoring was capped with a Ute field goal, 17-3 at the break.

Asked as he walked off the field about his early quarterback switch-a-rama strategy, Whittingham rather understatedly said: “They’re both doing a nice job, taking care of the football.”

There never was a Ute turnover.

As mentioned, the QBs took care of their up-top, ground-level business straight on through. One note of Utah concern was its inability to preserve the lead down the stretch simply with a crash-and-smash run game. All told, the Utes picked up just 105 rushing yards. They gained only 13 total yards in the third quarter.

Whittingham seemed mildly concerned, happy to have criticism to drop on his team in practices next week, but not overly bothered.

That Utah defense, the one that yielded 283 rushing yards in Gainesville a year ago, was problematic, only this time for the Gators, not the Utes themselves. It often created a disoriented, discombobulated situation for the visitors.

Specifically, Jonah Elliss and his pass-rushing buds crowded Florida quarterback Graham Mertz, alternately confusing and crushing him, rolling up five sacks.

Florida could neither pass nor run the football through the middle parts of the game and nobody on their sideline over that stretch could conjure any other way to sustain drives. The Gators constructed a sweet scoring move down the field in the final quarter, but by that time, the thing was done. Whether that offense was/is somewhat inept or the Ute resistance was/is somewhat stellar, that’s a question for another day. On this occasion, it didn’t matter.

An interception by Utah early in the third quarter within the shadow of Florida’s goalposts set up another score, this time a Barnes scamper, essentially slamming shut the cage door on the Gators. Thereafter, the Utes’ party — speaking of the fans, anyway — began.

What did it all mean for the weeks and months ahead? Nobody’s sure. Rushing to judgment does no one any good.

Whittingham said afterward: “This team’s got a lot of grit. Couldn’t be prouder of these guys. … We got the victory, on to the next one.”

He added that even though the Utes weren’t at their best, he’d take it: “Overall, it was an excellent way to start the season.”

He added further that he guessed Rising would be able to go “full on” in practice next week. “We want Cam back as soon as we can get him back.”

Here’s what we strongly suspect: Barnes is a more complete quarterback at this stage than Johnson, but both, in the absence of Rising, can and will help Utah win games, if needed. It’s also possible they might lose some.

Beyond that, the Utes gave indications that they are, indeed, what we thought they could be — good. Are they or will they be great? Will Rising really be back next week? Will he have to be? Can the other missing stars heal? Will the offensive front need to rely on a nimble-footed backup quarterback to pump up the rushing attack? Will the Utes defend their Pac-12 title? Can they go undefeated?

Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Utah wasn’t built in a day, nor in a night.

Hmm … we’ll get back to you on all of the above. When we know, you’ll know. When you know, we’ll know. But it might be, probably will be, a whole lot of fun finding out.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.