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Friday, January 27, 2023

Florida upsets No. 7 Utah in front of record crowd

Senior linebacker Amari Burney sealed the win with last-minute interception

Florida linebacker Amari Burney intercepts a pass from Utes quarterback Cameron Rising in the closing moments of the Gators' upset of No. 7 Utah Saturday night.
Florida linebacker Amari Burney intercepts a pass from Utes quarterback Cameron Rising in the closing moments of the Gators' upset of No. 7 Utah Saturday night.

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising drove the ball 69 yards down the field as the Utes sat six yards from the Florida end zone. With 17 seconds on the clock, Florida stared at an impossible stop to keep its upset dream alive. Its defense needed a massive play.

Super senior linebacker Amari Burney delivered. 

As Rising scanned the end zone for a lane, he fired a pass over the middle, only for Burney to jump the route and intercept the pass. The St. Petersburg native sealed an enormous victory for the Gators and first-year head coach Billy Napier.

“We were yelling at each other saying ‘somebody has to make a play right now’,” Burney said. “I played receiver so it was very easy to catch the ball.”

The Florida Gators (1-0) held off the No. 7 Utah Utes (0-1) 29-26 in the first game of the season Saturday. The team was backed by 90,799 fans in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — the most ever for a UF season opener, 10th most in program history and 2,251 more than the listed capacity. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Richardson, in his first career home start, dazzled with 168 passing yards and another 106 on the ground and three touchdowns.

The Gators’ start was near perfect. UF moved the ball with precision down the field before Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson fumbled. The Utes returned the loose ball deep into Florida territory and capitalized on the mistake with an early touchdown.

After both sides traded punts, Richardson impressed with his athletic ability. He avoided Utah defenders and evaded a pair of sacks throughout the drive. 

The Gators continued gaining ground on the Utes — including a perfect strike from Richardson to Arizona State transfer receiver Ricky Pearsall. But they faced a fourth-and-2 in the red zone. Napier showed off his aggressive approach, keeping the offense on the field. 

Richardson received the snap and rolled to his right, finding Johnson all alone in space. The Louisiana transfer made up for his earlier turnover, racing down the sideline before stepping out of bounds at the 2-yard line. Richardson capped off the 14-play, 63-yard drive himself with a short rushing touchdown to level the game at seven. 

Utah’s offense started moving the ball on the Gators’ defense, marching further into Florida territory on consecutive drives. First year defensive coordinator Patrick Toney’s defense held firm in the red zone, though, holding the visitors to a pair of field goals. 

Florida opened the following drive with back-to-back first down passes from Richardson, quickly moving the offense down the field. Two plays later, the Eastside High School alumnus looked for a man downfield before taking matters into his own hands.

He rolled left and saw a sea of green ahead of him, taking off for 45 yards and his second rushing score of the game. Florida clung to a 14-13 advantage with under two minutes left in the second quarter.

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“My wife can call plays with that guy at quarterback,” Napier said. “His legs are a difference maker and you saw it tonight.”

Despite a few unsuccessful drives, Florida’s offense moved the ball to the tune of 248 yards in the first half with Richardson accounting for 175 of them. The defense largely held Utah’s offense at bay, except for a few short field situations, limiting the Utes to 134 yards of offense. 

The visitors opened the second half on offense and they immediately asserted themselves on the ground. The Utes’ star halfback Tavion Thomas ripped off a 22-yard chunk, and Utah eventually progressed inside the Florida 30-yard line.

On a crucial third down, Rising finally let the ball fly, finding a wide-open receiver for a 16-yard gain. Thomas got the Utes to the 1-yard line, but the Florida line dug its heels in. The Gators pushed Thomas back for a 2-yard loss before stonewalling Rising at the 1-yard line.

Facing a massive fourth-and-goal within breathing distance of the Gators’ endzone, Florida’s front seven blew up the play, stopping the Utes short once more and sending the Swamp into a frenzy. 

Florida began in the ensuing possession in the shadow of the south endzone. A 15-yard completion from Richardson to redshirt junior receiver Justin Shorter gave the Gators necessary breathing room. Freshman running back Trevor Etienne found a hole in the defense two plays later, racing for 17 more yards. 

Florida crossed into Utah territory, but a costly false start penalty set up a third-and-10 at midfield. Former Gators linebacker Mohamoud Diabate forced Richardson to his right before the sophomore signal caller launched a pass into heavy traffic. 

Fortunately for the home side, the ball fell harmlessly to the turf and UF punted the ball away.

Rising and the Utes struck quickly on their drive, hitting Brant Kuithe in stride down the seam for a 37-yard gain. Rising found space on the ground and cut through the defense for a 26-yard gain before running back Micah Bernard found pay dirt. Utah attempted a two-point conversion to push the lead to seven, but the ball hit the ground on an attempted reverse, keeping the lead at five.

Richardson found Pearsall once again for 16 yards to close out the third quarter. As the Gators entered a make-or-break fourth quarter, a choir of fans echoed Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” through the bowl of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

The game entered its final stanza with Florida on the move. On a short third down at the Utah 40-yard line, Johnson broke through traffic and rumbled ahead for a 17-yard gain. Two plays later, he found a lane and cut the heart of Utah’s defense for a 14-yard score, his first as a Gator.

Richardson made magic on the ensuing two-point conversion. He faked a jump pass, spun past an unblocked Utes defender, sprinted past another and lofted a perfect ball to Ja’Quavion Fraziars, who was wide open in the corner of the end zone.

Down by three, Utah took over possession and attacked the Gators’ defense. A balanced attack and clutch plays from Rising culminated in an 11-play, 73-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead with 6:26 left in the game. 

“I remember telling the defensive players coming off the field, ‘we’re gonna go score,’” Napier said. 

Florida faced a game-altering third down on its next drive. With the visiting Utes’ faithful raising their voices, Richardson found sophomore Xzavier Henderson on a quick swing, before the Miami native made a man miss to pick up the first down.

Etienne broke loose for a 15-yard rush up the gut, but nearly made an enormous freshman mistake: He fumbled the ball in front of him. Etienne fortunately pounced on the football, keeping the drive alive for another play.

With 1:53 left in the game, Florida faced fourth-and-2. After battling all night against Utah, this was the play of the game. The offense broke the huddle out of the time out and took the field.

Richardson stood behind the center. The Gainesville native took the snap and looked for an open receiver. Utes defenders swarmed the pocket and Richardson was forced to make a play.

He rolled to his right and found a lane of space, sprinting into the open field and keeping the Gators hopes of an upset alive and well.

“I just told him to play,” Napier said. “Nothing more complicated than that.”

After a 10-yard burst from Johnson, Florida set up three yards away from pay dirt and potential glory. 

The Gators lined up with an extra offensive lineman and a tight end. They were going to will their way into the endzone on the ground. 

Richardson pulled the ball from the gut of Johnson and sprinted past the edge for the score, his third career high of the night and arguably the most significant of his collegiate career.

Florida’s defense took the field trying to secure an early signature win for Napier’s program. The Utes marched down the field, setting up just yards from Florida’s end zone and a late escape. 

The Utes tried to undermine Richardson’s brilliance, but Burney made a play on the ball in the endzone and sealed the victory for the Gators. 

“He’s played like 1,600 snaps here, I call him old man,” Napier said. “We’re thankful for Amari… that’s a special moment for that locker room because they love Amari Burney.”

The Gators open SEC play in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 7 p.m. Saturday against the Kentucky Wildcats. 

Contact Topher Adams at Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. He also covered Florida football lacrosse for the paper and loves to follow MLS soccer and professional lacrosse.

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