Florida vs. Utah score, takeaways: Gators unimproved in disastrous, mistake-filled opener

By OnlyGators.com Staff
September 1, 2023
Florida vs. Utah score, takeaways: Gators unimproved in disastrous, mistake-filled opener

Image Credit: UAA

Expectations may have been low for the Florida Gators entering the 2023 season, but after Thursday night’s 24-11 road loss to the No. 14 Utah Utes, they should perhaps tumble even further. The Gators looked mostly listless while falling to the Utes, victims of the same self-inflicted errors that plagued the entirety of Year 1 under head coach Billy Napier.

It all started on the game’s opening drive as a false start on third-and-1 gave space to Utah’s defense. The Utes’ first possession then ended in a single play with a 70-yard touchdown right through the middle of the Gators defense. That was simply a microcosm of how Florida’s mistakes compounded over the course of the game.

In the end, Florida dropped just its second season-opening game since 1989, and Napier fell to 2-3 in openers as a head coach. The Gators also lost their third straight nonconference game and are now 1-6 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier.

“There’s no question that we can coach better and play better [than we did] today,” Napier said. “We can do our part to help our players. Certainly, we got a lot of cats out there, first game for the Gators, that made a lot of costly mistakes in the game.”

He continued: “The Gators weren’t good enough tonight. That’s my responsibility, and we’ll work hard to get it right.”

Let’s take a look at what went down as Florida started 0-1 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

New season, same mistakes

Back-breaking discipline penalties: Surely giving Gators fans PTSD from a season ago, Florida time and again Thursday committed horrendous penalties due to a lack of discipline in key situations. Beyond the aforementioned false start on third-and-1 on the game’s first drive, Florida was flagged for delay of game on third-and-7 and false start on fourth-and-1 during a second-quarter red zone drive. The result? A missed 31-yard field goal.

On the ensuing drive, Gators special teams gave the Utes new life during a fourth-down punt at midfield; two Florida players both wearing No. 3 were on the field at the same time, resulting in a first down for Utah. Four plays later, the Utes scored a 27-yard touchdown, resulting in a 10-point swing from the red zone penalties the preceding drive.

The next time Florida entered the red zone — in the third quarter — illegal formation ruined a great chance on third-and-1 from the Utah 15-yard line. In total, the Gators committed nine penalties for 45 yards, and their 1 of 13 mark on third down was partially caused by undisciplined penalties turning short-yardage situations into tougher conversions.

“Offensively, the red zone miscues, the missed field goal … and we just had too many penalties. We had three procedure penalties in short-yardage situations. We had an illegal formation. Those are things that we can do better,” Napier said.

He continued: “The penalties were surprising. We played really clean football [in training camp]. The things that we can control, those are the things that are frustrating for a coach. Ultimately, too many of those [went wrong].”

Mind-numbing play calling: Napier’s situational play calling was a constant issue in 2022, and through four quarters of 2023, it appears as if nothing has changed. Facing third-and-6 on the pushed-back first series, Napier called for a pass 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Later in the first quarter, he called a run on second-and-18 after redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz was sacked pushing Florida out of the red zone.

Back in scoring position early in the second half, Napier called an inside shovel pass on fourth-and-3 for lost yardage. At midfield later in the third quarter, Napier ran on third-and-10 for 1 yard then threw on fourth-and-9 with Mertz getting sacked on the obvious passing play. Finally, with the game on the line, Napier called a wide receiver screen on fourth-and-14 that was doomed from the second the ball was snapped.

Lack of urgency plagues offense: Slim as it may have been, the Gators had a chance to make the game respectable — or perhaps even pull off an upset — in the fourth quarter. Florida got the ball back at its own 37-yard line with 5:59 to play and two timeouts after a missed 55-yard field goal by Utah. Though an NCAA rule change allowing for a running clock outside of first downs with 2 minutes remaining did impact the amount of time the Gators had to operate, Napier wasted so much of it with slow play calling and an overall lack of urgency.

Florida ran 10 plays gaining just 33 yards in 4:20 on its final drive of the game. It was a situation where the Gators needed to a run a 2-minute drill, score and attempt an onside kick. Instead, they took their sweet time and turned the ball over on downs — still 30 yards from the end zone — with 1:39 remaining. Napier’s lack of urgency also appeared at the end of the third quarter when he let the final 30 seconds run out despite his team being down three scores at the time. It’s maddening as a repeated issue that plagued the team constantly in 2022.

Special teams errors: Beyond redshirt sophomore kicker Adam Mihalek’s missed 31-yard field goal and the bone-headed special teams penalty, Florida committed two other costly errors in the third phase of the game. Junior Jeremy Crawshaw shanked a punt 21 yards, quickly leading to a 51-yard field goal for Utah, and freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III fielded a punt inside the 5-yard line, resulting in the Gators starting a drive on their own 7. Mertz threw a tip-drill interception three plays later leading to the Utes’ lone second-half score. It also appears as if Florida had only nine players on Utah’s final field-goal attempt of the game, another substitution error on the coaches.

“It’s exactly [a communication breakdown],” Napier said on the jersey penalty. “… We got to communicate that better. There’s no question that we control that [as coaches]. We didn’t do the right way.”

Know your role

All of the aforementioned problems lead to the same conclusion that was drawn in this space midway through the 2022 campaign and consistently through the end of that season: Napier does not know his role as a head coach in the SEC. Rather than building a complete coaching staff that covered Florida’s needs in every phase of the game, Napier insisted on calling plays and coaching quarterbacks himself. He also refused to hire an on-field special teams coordinator, instead choosing to place two offensive line coaches on his staff (one with the title of offensive coordinator) and name Chris Couch the “GameChanger coordinator,” an off-field special teams role that appears to be changing UF games for the worse.

That setup did not work for the Gators in 2022, and it is already proving a failed strategy in 2023. Look at where Florida struggled Thursday night: discipline, offensive play calling, special teams. Sure, players are responsible for the false starts, illegal formations and poor kicks, but it’s more than fair to wonder why the Gators continue to have so many discipline and attention-to-detail errors in key situations when the offensive line literally has two coaches — more than any other position on the team. Plus, why were two No. 3s are on the field in a punt return scenario, and why it was not hammered into Wilson not to field that punt?

Here’s a hint: It’s coaching.

Napier’s cool, calm, deliberate demeanor is an attractive quality for a head coach. Players, fans and the administration want to know the lead guy is in control. And there’s no doubt that Napier has rebuilt the infrastructure of Florida football — including the recruiting apparatus.

But he claimed this offseason that he took a deliberate, thorough look across the program after Year 1 to determine what worked well and what did not. He said the Gators improved in all phases from the weight room to nutrition to the transfer portal to the coaching staff.

Perhaps Napier forgot to take an internal survey. With three assistants departing the program for NFL jobs, he was given a pristine opportunity to shake up the coaching staff by hiring an offensive play caller and special teams coordinator that apparently everyone but him knows the Gators need. Instead, he stubbornly held firm, keeping his grip on play calling and allowing special teams to continue faltering.

It’s only Week 1, yet after four quarters of 2023 football, perhaps the worst-case scenario seems to be unfolding: nothing has changed. Napier needs to hire an offensive coordinator and special teams coordinator, just like he did at the end of the 2022 season.

The sooner Napier accepts and embraces his proper role as CEO-coach, the better off Florida football will be. Unfortunately, given an offseason without changes being made and 11 more games to go this season, that may not be possible until 2024.

Concerns by the numbers

  • Florida scored 10 points in four red zone drives.
  • The Gators were 1 of 13 on third down and 2 of 5 on fourth down. Their only third-down conversion came with 12 minutes left in the game.
  • Florida gained 8 total yards in the second quarter.
  • The Gators outgained the Utes 108-12 in the third quarter but got outscored 7-0.
  • Florida went seven quarters without a touchdown before scoring in the fourth quarter.
  • Mertz was sacked five times for -29 yards despite two substantial rushes earlier in the game.

Slivers of hope

Offense: Mertz was disrespected all offseason due to his struggles at Wisconsin, but against a solid Utah defense on Thursday, he certainly looked capable. In fact, Florida’s biggest issue offensively was not Mertz but rather an offensive line that consistently struggled to pass block. Part of the reason for those struggles was the absence of redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun, who had started 26 straight games for the Gators and helped serve as a lynchpin for a thin unit.

Taking five sacks and throwing a costly interception was certainly not ideal for Mertz, but he was otherwise beyond competent. He completed 31 of 44 passes for a career-high 333 yards with a touchdown. Mertz proved to be a willing runner — making two solid gains with his legs, including an 11-yard run on third-and-12 during which he got popped — and threw a number of touch passes hauled in by redshirt sophomore wide receiver Marcus Burke (two receptions, 61 yards) in the first half along with sophomore WR Caleb Douglas (four receptions, 42 yards) and senior Ricky Pearsall (eight receptions, 92 yards) in the second half.

Douglas also had a terrific Randy Moss-like 19-yard touchdown grab in the game. That concluded a 13-play, 98-yard scoring drive that was legitimately impressive. Wilson added a 2-point conversion. While he may have only totaled 33 yards on the day, he proved to be an offensive spark plug who needs as many touches in space as possible.

Though star running backs junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne combined for just 10 carries — five in each half, an unacceptably small number — the duo did combine to catch seven passes for 53 yards. That’s one-third as many receptions as they had in the totality of the 2022 season. It’s inexcusable that Johnson and Etienne did not tote the rock more — even against the Utes’ stellar defensive front — but additional touches in the passing game is undoubtedly a positive development in the offense.

“A lot of it has to do with the way [Utah’s defense] played,” Napier said, “but there’s no doubt that’s an area where we need to improve. We got to get production out of the two backs. We got to give them an opportunity to impact the game. When we did run it, I don’t necessarily know it was effective as we want it to be.”

Defense: While Florida was operating against a third-string quarterback and did allow Utah signal callers to run for 56 yards and two touchdowns, the defense was largely efficient Thursday night. The Gators held the Utes to just 270 total yards and 3 of 13 on third down. Florida attacked better than it did in 2022 and played well in coverage other than the initial blown coverage by junior transfer safety R.J. Moten. It’s too early to tell whether defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong will have his unit playing better as the season progresses, but there were signs of life from a defense that struggled massively in 2022.

“Defensively, after the first play, we kind of settled in and played pretty decent,” Napier said. “… Outside of the big play, those guys did a lot of good things. There were some positives there.”

Odds and ends

Florida lost for the first time to Utah in three meetings (1-2) … the Gators are now 7-6-1 all-time against Pac-12 opponents, 7-3-1 in the regular season … the Utes hosted and SEC team for the first time and are now 1-7 against the SEC in regular-season play … Florida lost a season-opening game for the second time since 1989 … Napier is 2-3 in season openers as a coach, all against Power Five competition … the Gators are now 17-5 against nonconference opponents since 2018 with three straight losses … Florida is now 7-16 against ranked opponents since 2018 and 1-6 against AP Top 25 teams under Napier … the Gators have score din 437 consecutive games, an NCAA record

Florida played a regular-season game on Thrusday for the first time in 30 years (1992) … the Gators played a nonconference true road game outside of the Sunshine State for the first time in 31 years (1991) … Florida played a true road game as a season opener for the first time in 35 years (1987)

What it means

Nothing good. The Gators have posted one offensive touchdown in their last eight quarters and been outscored in those two games — both against Pac-12 opponents — by a total of 54-14. Florida threw for twice as many yards as Utah on Thursday and outgained the hosts by 76 yards yet lost by two scores.

“We’re in the fight, and we made tons of mistakes,” Napier said. “There’s going to be a ton of teachable moments. … First thing I told the team after the game, ‘Execution wins.’ Let’s call it like it is. It’s simple. We do what we’re supposed to do at times out there, it’s a lot more competitive game.”

The Gators have now lost four straight games and seven of the last 10 against Power Five opponents dating back to Sept. 24, 2022. This with Florida set to continue the toughest schedule in the nation across each of the next two seasons. In other words, it may actually get worse before it gets better — if it ever does.

“Adversity presents a choice. You can choose character or you can choose to compromise,” Napier said. “One thing I know about this group, we’ve worked hard on building some intangibles. Already, I can see that this group will respond the right way. I believe that.”

What’s next?

A hectic week, including an earlier departure than planned due to a hurricane, surely had Florida weary going into its Week 1 showdown. So, the Gators should be pleased to get an opportunity to regroup against McNeese State on Saturday, Sept. 9. The Cowboys, an FCS program, went 4-7 last season. The game will air live nationally at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU.


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