GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Just when it looked like No. 7 Utah was on the verge of snatching victory from the Gator jaws of defeat in a classic, season-opening battle amid the humidity and the ear-splitting roar of a record-setting crowd, Florida provided the final chomp of the night.
In what coach Kyle Whittingham called a “gut-wrencher,” the Utes, the reigning Pac-12 champs, saw their hopes of a notable road victory against a SEC foe disappear as quarterback Cam Rising threw an interception in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining.
And with that, the Gators earned a dramatic 29-26 victory over Utah in Florida coach Billy Napier’s debut.
The Utes have been projected by some around the country as a possible College Football Playoff team. It’s way too early to tell definitively how this defeat might impact that.
But the outcome didn’t change the way Whittingham views his team.
“Tough, tough loss,” he said. “But I’ll tell you what, I’m proud of our football team. There are no moral victories. I’m not trying to paint that picture. We’re way past that, but you talk about a group of guys that just compete till the bitter end, they showed toughness, grit and determination.
“You name it, we showed it. We didn’t get it done. We just came up short.”
The announced crowd of 90,799 marked the largest opening night crowd in school history. It was also the 10th largest crowd in school history.
In a game that saw the lead change hands four times over the final 15:12, the Utes found themselves trailing by three with 1:25 left in the game.
Rising, who finished the night with 216 yards passing on 22 of 32 attempts and 91 yards rushing, drove the offense to the Florida 6-yard line with 22 seconds on the clock.
Utah could have kicked a field goal to force overtime, but instead it chose to go for the win. On 2nd-and-6, Rising threw a pass into traffic and it was picked off by linebacker Amari Burney just beyond the goal line.
Rising, who had a 29-yard scamper earlier in the drive, said running wasn’t a good option at that point because the Utes were out of timeouts.
“It wasn’t his best throw of the night,” Whittingham said. “I’m sure he wishes he had it back, but he played really well tonight. He ran the football effectively, threw the ball effectively. He’s our guy. That’s not going to change.”
Earlier in the game, Utah squandered other chances and left points on the field.
For example, early in the third quarter, the Utes had second-and-goal from the Florida 1-yard line, but they failed to score on three straight plays, culminating with Tavion Thomas being stuffed at the goal line on fourth down.
And near the end of the third period, after a 7-yard touchdown run by Micah Bernard, the Utes “botched” the two-point conversion, Whittingham said.
“That would have been big,” the coach said. “It would have been a situation where a field goal wins it there at the end. A lot of shoulda, woulda, couldas.”
“It’s hard,” said tight end Brant Kuithe, who caught nine passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. “A lot of missed opportunities. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot. But give (Florida) credit. They made stops when needed. They’re a good team.”
The Gators were led by dynamic quarterback Anthony Richardson, who completed 17 of 24 passes for 168 yards. He managed to gash the Ute defense with his legs, finishing with 11 carries for 106 yards and three touchdowns.
Richardson recorded a 45-yard TD run with 1:42 left in the second quarter, which put Florida on top 14-13 at halftime. Then with 1:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, his 2-yard TD turned out to be the game-winning score.
Whittingham noted Richardson’s “damaging runs” against his defense.
“He’s going to get his. He’s 6-4, 240 and he runs a 4.3,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to keep him bottled up. He’s a terrific player.”
Many wondered how the Utes would handle the heat, humidity and the intense, loud environment at The Swamp.
But Kuithe said the hostility of the crowd wasn’t a factor in the game for the offense.
“We worked for a couple of weeks on crowd noise,” he said. “We prepared for it.”
Whittingham acknowledged how difficult it is to play in Gainesville.
“It’s a tough place to play,” he said. “That’s a tough environment out there.”
On the game’s opening drive, Florida was carving up the Utah defense, driving deep into Ute territory when safety R.J. Hubert scooped up a fumble caused by Jonah Elliss and raced 47 yards.
That play set up Utah’s first score of the game — a 7-yard touchdown pass from Rising to Kuithe, who caught the ball at the 3-yard line and bulled into the end zone, knocking the helmet off a Gator defender.
And with 11:23 left in the first quarter, the Utes seized a 7-0 advantage.
Florida tied the game at 7-apiece with 39 seconds remaining in the first quarter on a 3-yard touchdown run by Richardson.
The Utes regained the lead early in the second quarter after a drive stalled at Florida’s 25-yard line. Jordan Noyes boomed a 43-yard field goal to put Utah up 10-7.
Noyes struck again with a 31-yard field goal with 3:18 left in the first half after the Gators stopped the Ute offense at the 13-yard line. At that point, Utah led 13-7.
But Florida wasted little time responding. Four plays later, Richardson got loose on a 45-yard touchdown run to give the Gators their first lead of the game, 14-13 with 1:42 until halftime.
Utah’s final drive of the half went nowhere and it entered the locker room at intermission trailing by one point.
In the second half, it was clear that Utah’s game plan was to establish the run.
“In the second half, our offense got into a rhythm,” Whittingham said. “We started running the football, which is what we’re all about. We start running the football and everything else opens up.”
And the Utes did just that on the opening drive of the third quarter — Thomas ripped off 22 yards on the second play from scrimmage — driving all the way to the 1-yard line. But after second-and-1 from the Gator 1, the Utes failed to score on three straight plays, culminating with Thomas being stuffed at the goal line on fourth down.
However, Utah’s defense forced a punt and the offense stepped up, piecing together an impressive nine-play, 89-yard scoring drive that took five minutes off the clock. It was highlighted by a 37-yard reception by Kuithe and capped by Bernard’s 7-yard touchdown run.
The subsequent two-point conversion try failed, making the score 19-14 for the Utes with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
When Florida went up 22-19 in the fourth quarter, Gator fans celebrated by chanting “S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”
“Give credit to Florida. The cupboard was not bare when (former coach) Dan Mullen left,” Whittingham said. “They have some great athletes, starting with the quarterback. He’s a terrific player. If he stays healthy, they’ll win a bunch of games this year.”
The Utes silenced the crowd momentarily by retaking the lead on a 14-yard run by Thomas, who finished with 115 yards on 23 carries.
But in the end, Utah couldn’t make the plays it needed to in a raucous atmosphere.
“Disappointing that we couldn’t get the last stop that we needed on defense,” Whittingham said. “We had two chances at the end of the game to either get a stop on ‘D’ or finish that last drive. We came up oh-for-two on those. Again, our guys put us in position to have that opportunity.”
So nine months after supplying the country with a classic Rose Bowl game — a 48-45 loss to Ohio State — the Utes offered up another classic in the season opener at The Swamp.
“As long as we stick together and continue to work hard, which I don’t have any doubt we’ll do that, this team will win a bunch of games this year,” Whittingham said. “But it wasn’t to be this evening.”
Utah hosts Southern Utah next Saturday.
EXTRA POINTS: The Gators were an underdog in a home opener for the first time since 1978. Florida has won 33 straight home openers, best in the country. Napier became the first Florida coach to beat a ranked opponent in his debut. Utah is now 1-7 all-time against SEC opponents. Utah rolled up 446 yards of total offense, compared to 451 for Florida.