Utah cornerback Tao Johnson (15) tackles Florida wide receiver Ricky Pearsall (1) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Bryson Barnes threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Money Parks on Utah’s first play of the game, rushed for another score and the No. 14 Utes beat Florida 24-11 on Thursday night in the opener for both teams.
Nate Johnson split time at quarterback with Barnes for the Utes with usual starter Cam Rising still recovering from a knee injury in the Rose Bowl. Utah clamped down on defense in Rising’s absence, forcing a turnover and getting five sacks.
Graham Mertz threw for 333 yards, a touchdown, and an interception in his first start for the Gators. Ricky Pearsall had 92 yards on eight catches. Florida drove inside the red zone four times but totaled only 10 points on those drives.
Making his second career start, Barnes wasted no time making an impact with the scoring strike to Parks. Barnes completed his first four passes and had 150 yards passing by halftime. He finished with 159 yards.
Johnson also put Florida’s defense on its heels when he checked in during the second quarter. He faked a handoff to Micah Bernard and raced 27 yards to extend Utah’s lead to 14-3 midway through the second quarter.
Special teams mistakes set up both second-quarter scoring drives for the Utes. The Gators committed a fourth-down equipment infraction penalty to negate a punt and keep the Utes’ second touchdown drive alive. Then, a 21-yard Florida punt to set up a 51-yard field goal from Cole Becker.
Sione Vaki tipped an interception to himself inside the Florida 15 to set up Utah’s third touchdown. Barnes capped the 3-play drive with a 5-yard run to put the Utes up 24-3 early in the third quarter.
Florida: Generating offensive momentum proved to be a chore for the Gators. Florida totaled only 8 yards in the second quarter, averaging 0.7 yards per play. The Gators also went 0 of 9 on third down before finally converting one early in the fourth quarter.
Utah: An imposing defense carried the Utes when their offense cooled after a hot start. Utah didn’t get a ton of production from its normally explosive running game, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. But the Utes also limited Florida to 13 yards rushing.
A convincing victory over an SEC opponent will likely bolster Utah’s position in the upcoming AP poll.
Florida: Hosts McNeese on Sept. 9.
Utah: At Baylor on Sept. 9.