Three takeaways from Utah's 24-11 win over Florida
Utah opens the 2023 season with a bit of payback.
In front of a record crowd inside Rice-Eccles Stadium, and without its starting quarterback and several other key starters, the 14th-ranked Utes jumped all over the Florida Gators on Thursday night for a 24-11 season-opening victory.
Backup quarterback Bryson Barnes completed 12 of his 18 pass attempts for 159 yards and a touchdown. Utah got to the quarterback five times and posted seven tackles for loss. The Utes have plenty to improve on headed into Week 2, but it was a strong start for the defending Pac-12 champs.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Florida errors provide a boost
Florida had the kind of sequence in the first half that loses you football games.
After Gator quarterback Graham Mertz picked up 42 yards through the air from two plays, Florida was knocking on the door and looking like it could take a second-quarter lead on the Utes in Salt Lake City.
On a third-and-7 from the Utah 15, Florida was flagged for a delay of game.
After the third-and-12 play failed to pick up the first, Florida was flagged again trying to convert a fourth-and-1.
Then it missed a 31-yard field goal from the Utah 14.
Ball goes back to the Utes. And, oh, by the way, Mertz had a man open for a touchdown before all the chaos. A Utah defender lost his man; Mertz was looking the other way. Instead of a 10-7 Florida lead or a 7-6 game, Utah gets the ball back with no damage done.
The ensuing Utah drive stalled out at midfield thanks to a mishandled snap on second down and then a third-and-12 stop from the Gators. Florida was then flagged for having two players on the field at the same time wearing the No. 3 jersey on Utah’s punt and the ball went back to the Utes, who promptly scored three plays later on a 27-yard quarterback keeper.
Florida was flagged four times in the first half. It had 8 yards of offense on 12 plays in the second quarter. It was the kind of disjointed start UF could ill afford at a place that is darn near impossible to win at in recent years. Facing a tenacious Utah defense, the Gators needed to keep things close.
So, naturally, they went into the halftime break down 17-3. It never got back itself back into the game.
The defensive line is a force
Utah’s defensive front is going to be a problem. That group is unrelenting. The Utes’ pass rush made life miserable for Graham Mertz Thursday night, getting to him for five sacks and nearly bringing him down several other times.
Sacks came at crucial times. Pressure directly led to a few big-time incompletions. Utah was able to hold Florida to just one third-down conversion. Thirteen attempts for the Gators needed, on average, 10.2 yards to convert. The Utes were fantastic on second down to put the Gators in tough spots.
The pressure packages worked, but Utah got home out of their base stuff a few times. Jonah Elliss was a monster and finished with two sacks. Cole Bishop had one. Logan Fano. Keanu Tanuvasa had another.
A year ago, Utah’s defense was embarrassed in this game. The Utes weren’t clean and they weren’t up to their usual standard. This year provided the exact inverse.
Utah coaches said in training camp the defense was going to be good. With all of the youth that got on the field last fall, there was said to be top-end talent and quality depth. One game in, that looks to be the case.
And the scariest part? Utah was missing huge pieces. Junior Tafuna, Simote Pepa, and Connor O’Toole all missed the game and Utah still man-handled the Gators at the point of attack.
A run game to monitor
In 13 of its 14 games last season, Utah cleared 150 rushing yards. It cleared 200 yards seven times — including each of the first two weeks. That was with a revolving door in the backfield early.
The running back room was supposed to be a major strength with Ja’Quinden Jackson, Micah Bernard, Jaylon Glover, and eventually Chris Curry.
Take Nate Johnson’s rushing out of the equation and Utah had 72 yards on 21 attempts. The running backs averaged 4.1 yards a carry. Jackson had just 15 yards on five carries. Glover had 6 on four. A couple of late runs from Bernard made things look better than they were.
The Utes were outgained by the Gators on the evening, 346-270. Outgained on a per-play basis, too. Utah won the turnover battle, had fewer penalties, and played better on special teams. That was the difference. The offense wasn’t exactly firing.
Utah opened the game with a 70-yard touchdown pass on its first play. The rest of the day wasn’t easy. Utah’s pass game wasn’t going to wow without Cameron Rising. Utah’s run game was surprisingly ineffective, though.
Bonus: Utah’s injury concerns get worse
Cameron Rising and Brant Kuithe missed the game as they work their way back from significant injuries. Junior Tafuna dressed but didn’t play. Chris Curry dressed but didn’t play.
Utah lost Karene Reid in the first half. Ja’Quinden Jackson left the game in the third quarter and didn’t return. Cole Bishop briefly left the game, but was able to return.
Those are some major playmakers Utah can’t afford to be without.