Photo by Chris Gardner | Getty Images

The Florida Gators football team debuted Thursday against the No. 14 Utah Utes. Florida beat Utah 29-26 last season and opened its 2023 season with a new quarterback, Graham Mertz. Utah quarterback Cameron Rising was expected to not play in the season’s first matchup due to his ACL injury during the Utes Rose Bowl last season. Rising did not dress out for the game, and backup Bryson Barnes started against the Gators. 

Utah won the toss to start the game, wide receiver Trevor Etienne received the ball, and Florida brought in Graham Mertz. 

The Gators started the game a little rocky, with many new faces on the team and multiple incomplete passes from Mertz. The struggle continued on defense when Barnes threw a 70-yard touchdown to Utah wide receiver Money Parks on the first play from scrimmage.

Florida quickly gained momentum with a gain of 9-yards from wide receiver Eugene Wilson III and then another complete pass for 17-yards from Mertz to running back Montrell Johnson. The Gators, with the first spark of offense for the first time tonight, attempted a 32-yard field goal to put their first points on the scoreboard with 2:27 left in the first quarter, 7-3. 

The depth and size that Florida head coach Billy Napier emphasized showed when Barnes threw an incomplete in which the Gators could cover two and leave no open windows for Barnes to throw a complete pass. 

On offense, Mertz looked for a close touchdown with two complete passes to wide receiver Marcus Burke and tight end Johnathan Odom to close the first quarter. Mertz scrambled for 11-yards in an attempt for a first down but was struck by Utah, resulting in a fumble. Though the Gators recovered, the ensuing field goal was no good.

Utah fired up Nate Johnson and saw the route to run after the Gators were in man coverage. Johnson ran in a touchdown for 27-yards to give the Utes a 14-3 lead over Florida. 

Mertz was sacked for a loss of 12-yards for the second time in the game. Barnes continued to show out, and pressure from Florida kicked in where Barnes made several incomplete passes, but a 51-yard field goal attempt by Cole Becker pushed the Utes lead to 17-3 with 2:46.

The Gators entered halftime trailing by a pair of touchdowns against Utah’s blowout offense. Utah dominated in the first half, and if the Gators can make complete passes, there is a chance for a switch-up in the second half. 

Mertz failed to bring back the momentum in the second half after a miscommunicated throw to wide receiver Ricky Pearsall motioned an interception for Sione Vaki. Utah fans cheered, “We will rock you,” in the stadium as Barnes scrambled to the right field where Florida was nowhere to be found and ran in a 5-yard touchdown.    

Mertz attempted plays to move the defense out wide, but the timing made it difficult for the Gators to get past Utah’s defensive line. Mertz was sacked again when trying to back out but was not quick enough. 

Mertz’s pass to Odom moved the Gators down the field for 23-yards to close out the third quarter. Florida got a break with an automatic first down after pass interference from Utah. 

Mertz took advantage and threw a 19-yard deep left pass touchdown to a six-foot-four Caleb Douglas. Florida went for a two-point conversion to Wilson and pushed their score to 24-11. 

With a chance to score a touchdown, Mertz passed the ball to Pearsall, but it was overthrown. The incomplete pass was followed by a sack on Mertz from Utah Logan Fano, a leading freshman with his fifth sack of the night. 

Mertz’s pass was blocked with 1:39 left in the game, which left Florida in a downhill battle in which they could not make a comeback and called the game final, 24-11, for the Gators’ first matchup.

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