GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Standing in the tunnel and waiting to run into the raucous Swamp for the first time, Florida coach Billy Napier turned to an assistant and summed up the moment.
“Can you believe they pay us to do this?” he said.
It seemed like money well spent after the Gators delivered their biggest season-opening victory in more than 50 years.
Anthony Richardson ran for three scores in his second career start, including a 2-yard scamper with 1:25 remaining, and Florida upset seventh-ranked Utah 29-26 on Saturday night to get the Napier era off to a rousing start.
Richardson was the best player on the field most of the night. He really showed up down the stretch, although fifth-year linebacker Amari Burney was the one who sealed the victory for the rebuilding Gators. Burney intercepted Cam Rising‘s second-down pass into the end zone with 17 seconds remaining.
“Someone had to make a play, It happened to be me,” Burney said.
That set off a wild celebration for many of the 90,799 in attendance – the 10th most at home in school history. Richardson took a knee from there, and the Gators rushed the field to revel in their 33rd consecutive victory in home season openers. That’s the longest current streak in the nation.
“This group’s got a lot of fight in them,” said Napier, who replaced fired coach Dan Mullen in November. “They’ve got a little bit different edge to them.”
Richardson ran 11 times for 106 yards and was never stopped for a loss. He completed 17 of 24 passes for 168 yards and played turnover-free football.
“He’s going to get his (NFL payday),” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He’s 6-4, 230 and runs like a 4.3. He’s a terrific player.”
Richardson’s best play? He had an electrifying 2-point conversion early in the fourth quarter that put the Gators up 22-19. He juked former Florida teammate Mohamoud Diabate with a pump fake and then sprinted right by fellow Utah linebacker Lander Barton before throwing a strike to Ja’Quavion Fraziers in the back of the end zone.
Utah answered and briefly took the lead, but Richardson responded. He moved the chains with a third-down throw and again with a fourth-down run, both of which set up his game winner.
“Just trying to make something happen. Glad it worked,” Richardson said.
Rising moved the Utes in position to steal one on the road for a team that entered the season with its highest preseason ranking in school history. But Rising’s last pass was his most important – or costly – of the night.
“It wasn’t Cam’s best throw,” Whittingham said. “I’m sure he’d like that back, but he played great.”
Rising completed 22 of 32 passes for 216 yards, with a touchdown and the turnover. He also ran for 91 more.
Tavion Thomas had 115 yards rushing and a score for Utah, which caught a break when it rained about two hours before kickoff and erased whatever advantage Florida had with sweltering summer heat and humidity.
The difference was Florida’s success and Utah’s failure in the red zone. The Gators scored touchdowns on all three trips into the 20-yard line. The Utes had the late turnover and were stuffed on consecutive downs at the goal line to open the third quarter.
Utah also settled for two first-half field goals, one from 43 yards and another from 31.
Utah: The defending Pac-12 champions showed resiliency on the road, battling back to take the lead in the fourth quarter. Despite the loss, the Utes have enough talent and experience to be a factor in the chase for the College Football Playoff.
Florida: The Gators don’t look like they’ll in rebuilding mode for long. Napier’s recruiting has jumped in the last two months and a game like this could do wonders to help him close the gap on Southeastern Conference heavyweights Alabama and Georgia.
“There’s a lot of good energy in the locker room right now,” Richardson said.
MILLION DOLLAR HANDSHAKE
Napier showed a bit of modern-day coaching nuance in the first half when he left his team during a timeout to offer millionaire booster Hugh Hathcock a handshake and a partial hug. Hathcock is one of the program’s top donors.
Hathcock, who owns Velocity Automotive Solutions, gave the University Athletic Association a $12.6 million gift in April. Some of the money will be used to renovate Florida’s aging basketball practice facility and some is sure to help the football program. The Gators plan to name a suite tower at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and its basketball complex after Hathcock.
Utah: hosts Southern Utah next Saturday. The in-state teams played once previously, with the Utes winning 24-0 in 2016.
Florida: continues its tough opening stretch when it hosts No. 20 Kentucky to being SEC play next Saturday night.