SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Cam Rising didn’t play, so the Utes used two quarterbacks to beat the Florida Gators.
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.
“We knew what we were going to run with our first play of the game,” said Barnes, who found out about ten days ago that he was going to start. “That stuff you talk about when you’re a little kid. Like, what if we threw a touchdown on the first play of the game? It was great to go out there and actually put it on tape.”
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.
“I was very comfortable,” said Johnson, who also rushed for two touchdowns last season. “Going on year two, you get more and more comfortable with the offense. The more reps you get, the more the game slows down a little more.”
Utah clamped down on defense in Rising’s absence, forcing a turnover and getting five sacks. The Gators converted 1 of 13 third downs and 2 of 5 fourth downs while totaling 13 yards rushing on 21 carries.
“If you had to say what was the one phase or one thing that was the biggest difference in the game, it was the way our defense played,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
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.
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.
“I’ve been talking about how we were embarrassed to from that game last year,” said safety Cole Bishop about Utah’s 29-26 loss at Florida in 2022. “We came out with a chip on our shoulder. The d-line, linebackers, safeties, corners, everybody, played our hearts out and it paid off.”
Utah will next play at Baylor September 10th. Whether Rising plays is still undetermined, but he will be cleared for full practice this week.
“We want Cam back as soon as we can get him back,” said Whittingham. “It was great to see the quarterbacks play well. Bryson Barnes is now 2-0 as a starter. But Cam has made progress, and that’s why we delayed and delayed because we didn’t want to make a decision until there was a medical decision.”