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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Mental mistakes crush Gators in season opening defeat

Florida finished 1-13 on third down

A pair of Florida defenders tackle the Utah tailback in the Gators' win over No. 7 Utah Sept. 3, 2022.
A pair of Florida defenders tackle the Utah tailback in the Gators' win over No. 7 Utah Sept. 3, 2022.

SALT LAKE CITY – UF head coach Billy Napier’s second season started on a sour note. Mental mistakes plagued the Gators all game long as they fell to the No. 14 Utah Utes. 

Illegal formations, holding calls and even a penalty where two Florida players wore the same jersey number — No. 3 — on the same play extended Utah drives, killed UF scoring opportunities and doomed the Gators’ chances of an upset out west.

“There’s no question that we can coach better,” Napier said. “We can do our part to help our players.” 

The Florida Gators (0-1) fell to the Utes (1-0) 24-11 in Rice-Eccles Stadium Thursday night to open their 2023 football season. The Gators failed to convert in the clutch and ended just 1-13 on third-down conversions. 

The overarching theme from Napier, redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz and sophomore linebacker Shemar James was a need for better execution. 

“‘Execution.’ That’s the word,” Mertz said. “We just got to execute.” 

Mertz made his first start for Florida. Despite some shaky moments, the Wisconsin transfer completed 70% of his 44 passes for 333 yards. He also finished with one touchdown and one interception. 

Despite his performance, Mertz said his focus is on his job of helping the offense move the ball and help the team win games. 

“Now it’s holding myself accountable to that and obviously interception hurts that,” Mertz said. “So look back at that figure out what I can do better to take care of the ball.” 

The Gators finished with just 13 rushing yards in the game as they failed to move the ball. Junior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. ran the ball just three times in the game. 

Mertz completed his first pass as a Gator to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Kahleil Jackson for an eight-yard gain, but UF went three-and-out on its opening drive. 

It took the Utes just one play to strike on their first possession of the game. Quarterback Bryson Barnes — who started in the place of the injured Cam Rising — aired it out and dropped a dime to wide receiver Money Parks for a 70-yard touchdown. 

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The Florida defense settled in on the second drive. 

Freshman edge rusher T.J. Searcy and sophomore safety Miguel Mitchell quickly got to the backfield to tackle Utes running back Jaylon Glover for no gain and forced a Utah punt. 

The Gators finally picked up its first first down of the game after Mertz found redshirt sophomore Marcus Burke on a 37-yard pass into Utah territory. 

Florida settled for a 32-yard field goal after Utah sacked Mertz and the Gators couldn’t convert the third down late in the first quarter. 

Burke made an impressive catch with a defender draped over him to move Florida past the Utes 50-yard line on the next UF possession. The Gators moved the ball into the red zone before the conclusion of the first quarter. 

Mertz scrambled on third and long but came up one yard short. The Gators lined up to go for it but redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Damieon George Jr. was called for a false start. 

Redshirt sophomore kicker Adam Mihalek missed wide-right on his field goal attempt as Florida came away empty-handed after a promising drive. 

Mental errors continued to plague the Gators after they were called for a penalty on a Utes’ punt due to two UF players wearing the same number jersey on the field. 

Utah made the most of the mental lapse and drove down the field for a second score. Utah quarterback Nate Johnson found space and slipped past UF defenders for a 27-yard rushing touchdown to give the Utes a  14-3 lead with 7:50 left in the second. 

The Gators failed to respond on the ensuing drive. Sophomore running back Trevor Etienne picked up a first down after two solid runs, but the Utes got to Mertz for a massive sack to force a third-and-23 and eventually a punt. 

Utah nearly struck for a third touchdown on a double pass attempt. The play left Utah running back Micah Bernard wide open but the pass from receiver Devaughn Vele fell just beyond his fingertips. 

The Utes still came away with points after kicker Cole Bernard drilled a 51-yard field goal to make it 17-3 late in the first half. 

Utah forced another Florida three-and-out after sacking Mertz a third time in the first half.

Florida went into halftime down two scores against the Utes, 17-3.

The Gators forced a three-and-out to open the second half after sophomore cornerback Devin Moore broke up a third-down pass attempt.

Florida ran into trouble on their first possession of the second half. 

Mertz threw the ball toward senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall. Pearsall attempted to make the catch but hit it into the air where Utah safety Sione Vaki leaped and came down with it for the interception. 

The Utes took over at the Florida 11-yard line, and Utah capitalized with another touchdown. Florida gave Barnes all the time in the world in the pocket, and he ran toward open field and jogged into the endzone to make it 24-3. 

With the game slipping out of reach, Mertz found Pearsall wide open for a massive 40-yard gain into Utah territory. The Wisconsin transfer quickly found him again for a 13-yard gain to get another first down. 

The Gators failed to come away with points after another mental error. Etienne gained a first down but the play was called back for an illegal formation penalty. 

Florida then went for it on fourth down after a short run and failed to pick up the first after redshirt senior tight end Dante Zanders was tackled short of the line to gain. 

Late in the third quarter, the Gators tried to mount its first touchdown drive. Mertz dropped back on fourth down but the Utes defense got to him again for a 12-yard sack. 

The Gators got off to a promising start to begin the fourth quarter. UF got within the Utes’ 25-yard line before Utah forced a fourth-and-two. Pearsall caught an open pass for the first down to sustain the drive.

Florida found the end zone for the first time in the fourth quarter. Mertz lobbed it up to sophomore wide receiver Caleb Douglas, who rose up and made an impressive catch over his defender and calmly came down with the ball for the score. 

Mertz then found freshman wide receiver Eugene Wilson III on a slant for the two-point conversion to make it 24-11 with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter. The Gators’ touchdown marked their first since the fourth quarter of their game against Florida State Nov. 25, 2022. 

The Utes made it to the Gators’ 37-yard line before missing a field goal with 5:59 left in the game. 

Florida faced a fourth-and-3 at the Utah 32-yard line with a faint hope to come back late. Mertz completed a quick slant to Douglas to pick up the first down. Mertz nearly found Pearsall in the endzone, but Utah safety Zemaiah Vaughn hit Mertz and disrupted the pass.

The Utes sacked the Gators’ signal caller a fifth time on the ensuing play, and Florida faced a fourth-and-14 with under two minutes to play. The Utes blew up a screen pass, and defensive end Jonah Elliss swatted down the pass to force a turnover on downs.

Utah took over and knelt out the clock to secure the final result.

“You find out who you really are in difficult times, I think this group is going to respond,” Napier said. 

Mertz voiced how he was upset with the result but the team can still move past and grow from this, he said. 

“It is a long season,” Mertz said. “We’ve got a lot of games ahead of us. And this is a great game to look back at and be like you know what, ‘we never want that to happen again.’”

The Gators will return to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for their first home game Sept. 9 against McNeese State. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPNU. 

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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