Kyle Whittingham was reminded in the postgame presser that a year ago this time he called his Utah defense soft.

“Sure did,” the Utah head coach snapped back.

So how would he describe Thursday night’s 24-11 victory over the Gators to open the 2023 season?

“Stout,” Whittingham said. “Very stout. Hard-nosed.”

The Utes held Florida under 100 rushing yards in the game when you adjust for sacks. They had five of those and affected the quarterback on several other plays. Big plays were there for the Gators on multiple occasions, but Utah pressure kept them from materializing. The defensive front was dominant.

“If you had to say what was the one thing or the one phase that was the biggest difference in the game, it was the way our defense played,” Whittingham said.

Yes, UF quarterback Graham Mertz completed 31 of his 44 pass attempts for 333 yards.

Consider, though, that Utah held the Gators to just 8 total yards of offense in the second quarter — a frame that saw the Utes extend their lead to 17-3. Florida had seven rushing attempts that net 4 yards. Mertz completed just one of his five passes.

From then on, the Gators were forced to abandon the run to try and crawl back into the game.

And even against a defensive front missing key pieces, that played to the Utes’ best strength.

“Jonah Elliss is an absolute warrior out there. He’s quick. He’s relentless. He’s got a motor that never stops,” Whittingham said. “Just relentless in his style of play. He just keeps coming at you snap after snap.”

Elliss had two of Utah’s five sacks.

The Utes were without Connor O’Toole, who Whittingham called the team’s best pass-rusher. Junior Tafuna and Simote Pepa — Utah’s top two interior linemen — both missed the game. Whittingham said Van Fillinger was limited throughout most of fall camp by an illness.

“We’ve been boasting about our defensive line depth and we had to tap into that tonight,” Whittingham said. “You saw we had six, seven, eight guys we kept rolling in there who really didn’t miss a beat.”

Missed tackles were an issue last season in the 29-26 loss to Florida on the road. Not so much the case in Salt Lake City Thursday night.

“Didn’t give up a touchdown until right there in the fourth quarter,” Whittingham said. “Got after the quarterback. … A lot of good things for an opening game.”