The No. 14 Utah Utes pulled off a stunning upset over the Florida Gators in their season opener on Thursday night, winning 24-11 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. The Utes did it with their backup quarterbacks, as starter Cam Rising was ruled out due to an injury. Bryson Barnes and Nate Johnson stepped up and led the Utes to a dominant performance over the SEC powerhouse.
Barnes and Johnson shine in Rising’s absence
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham surprised everyone by starting Barnes, a freshman walk-on, over Johnson, a junior transfer from Virginia Tech. Barnes wasted no time in making an impact, as he connected with Money Parks for a 70-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Barnes finished the game with 159 yards and a touchdown on 12 of 18 passing.
Johnson also played a key role in Utah’s offense, as he showcased his dual-threat abilities. He scored on a 27-yard run in the second quarter, and added another 45 yards on six carries. He also completed two of three passes for 18 yards.
Whittingham praised his quarterbacks for their poise and execution. “They did a great job of managing the game and making plays when we needed them,” he said. “They were prepared and confident, and they showed it tonight.”
Florida struggles to find rhythm and consistency
The Gators, who were ranked No. 9 in the preseason AP poll, had high expectations for their new quarterback Graham Mertz, a transfer from Wisconsin. Mertz won the starting job over Jack Miller III in fall camp, and was expected to lead a potent offense under new coordinator Joe Moorhead.
However, Mertz had a rough debut in the orange and blue, as he threw for 333 yards but only one touchdown and one interception on 31 of 44 passing. He also lost a fumble and was sacked four times. His lone touchdown came in the fourth quarter, when he hit Caleb Douglas for a 19-yard score that cut the deficit to 24-11.
Mertz admitted that he was frustrated by his performance and the outcome of the game. “We didn’t play up to our standards, and that’s on me,” he said. “I have to do a better job of taking care of the ball and making better decisions. We have to learn from this and get better.”
Florida’s defense also had a tough night, as they allowed Utah to rack up 377 yards of total offense and control the clock for more than 35 minutes. The Gators failed to force any turnovers or register any sacks, and gave up several big plays to the Utes.
Florida coach Dan Mullen said that his team was outplayed and outcoached by Utah. “They were more physical, more disciplined, and more prepared than we were,” he said. “We have to give them credit for that. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what we need to do to improve.”
Utah avenges last year’s loss to Florida
The game was a rematch of last year’s season opener, when Florida edged Utah 29-26 in Gainesville. The Utes had a chance to tie or win the game in the final seconds, but Rising threw an interception in the end zone.
The Utes had been waiting for a chance to get revenge on the Gators, and they seized it with their impressive performance on Thursday night. They improved to 1-0 on the season, while handing Florida its first loss.
Utah will look to build on its momentum when it hosts BYU next week in the Holy War rivalry game. Florida will try to bounce back when it hosts South Florida next week.