The Gator Nation’s season opener did not go as planned, as Utah defeated Florida 24-11 on Thursday night in Salt Lake City. Head coach Billy Napier must address ongoing issues from last season to move forward. The Gators continue to struggle in the red zone, suffer from costly penalties, and show lackluster special teams.
Red zone offense struggles continue
In Billy Napier’s first season at Florida, the Gators ranked 118th in the country in red zone offense. In 52 attempts, they only produced 39 scores (75%), with 31 of those being touchdowns. The 2023 team isn’t off to a great start in turning things around, as they only scored on 50% of their red zone attempts against the Utes.
Adam Mihalek made his first field goal attempt of the season from 32 yards out in the first quarter to cut into Utah’s lead, making it 7-3. On Florida’s next possession, Mihalek missed a chance to cut the lead to one when he pushed a 31-yard attempt wide right.
Later, in the third quarter and down 24-3, Florida faced a fourth-and-3 on the Utah 15. A shovel pass to Dante Zanders was called, but Utah blew the play up from the start and Zanders lost a yard. It makes one wonder if Florida was trying to be too cute with that call.
The last red zone trip of the game produced Florida’s only touchdown, as Graham Mertz threw a jump ball to Caleb Douglas, who showed great ability and concentration to come down with the catch.
Just like many times last season, Florida was able to move the ball between the 20-yard lines. However, poor play-calling, execution, and penalties caused significant problems in scoring points in the red zone.
Speaking of penalties…
Penalties against the Gators contributed to points for Utah and likely took points away from Florida. Penalties played a significant role in Florida’s red zone issues.
During the drive where Mihalek missed the field goal, Florida was called for delay of game on 3rd and 7 from the Utah 15. On the next play, Mertz scrambled for 11 yards on 3rd and 12, setting up a 4th and 1 from the Utah 9. However, Damieon George was then flagged for false start, forcing Florida to settle for a missed FG from Mihalek instead of going for a 4th and 1.
Moving forward, in the third quarter, on the Zanders failed conversion. Florida had 3rd and 1 at the Utah 13 when the Gators were called for an illegal formation. Trevor Etienne only got a reception for three yards on the next play, and then the shovel pass to Zanders was called, which failed once again in the red zone.
Perhaps the biggest penalty came away from the red zone in the second quarter. Florida had some momentum on defense, stopping Utah after the missed Mihalek field goal, and forcing a punt near midfield on 4th and 3. However, an inexplicable penalty was called on Florida for illegal substitution because Eugene Wilson and Jason Marshall were on the field wearing the same number 3. That gave Utah a first down, and Utah scored three plays later to make it 14-3 Utes.
In Napier’s debut season, the Gators struggled with penalties, ranking 104th in fewest penalties allowed. Unfortunately, this trend has continued into 2023. Against Utah, Florida accumulated nine penalties for 45 yards. However, it wasn’t just the yardage that hurt the Gators; the penalties also took them out of favorable down and distance situations and directly led to scores by Utah. Playing on the road in Utah is never easy for opponents, and it seemed like the Gators were unprepared to handle the atmosphere.
Special teams still an issue
Another issue from last season that arose again against Utah was poor special teams play. The missed field goal by Mihalek and the Marshall/Wilson jersey incident were already mentioned, but there were a few more instances where special teams didn’t perform well for the Gators.
In one instance that probably helped Utah score points, the Gators forced a 4th and 22 from their own 25 in the second quarter. However, Jeremy Crawshaw shanked a punt 21 yards, giving Utah possession at Florida’s 46 yard line. Utah only converted one first down, but they managed to score three points from a 51-yard field goal, extending their lead to 17-3.
Later in the third quarter, Florida’s freshman Eugene Wilson was back to return a punt that traveled 61 yards. Wilson was pushed back to field the punt, which he should have let go into the end zone, but he was tackled right away back at the seven yard line. Three plays later, Graham Mertz’s intended pass to Ricky Pearsall was tipped in the air and picked off at the Florida 11 yard line. Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes scrambled to the right three plays later for a five-yard touchdown, extending Utah’s lead to 24-3.
Photo credit: Maddie Washburn, UAA Communications