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Florida 29, Utah 26: Gators ring in Billy Napier era with stunning, stirring win

Anthony Richardson powered an offense that took everything it could. Amari Burney seized the game at the end.

NCAA Football: Utah at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

And if you close your eyes / Does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?

— “Pompeii,” Bastille

I’m not sure I ever actually wrote about it here, but I listened to “Pompeii” a lot back in 2014, when I was covering a Florida football season that had all of the requisite enthusiasm — the vim and vigor and vitality you want from a college football crowd — in the stands in The Swamp, and little to none of the magic on the field to match it.

Literally, if you closed your eyes, it could almost feel like nothing had changed from any of many glory days in Gainesville since Steve Spurrier’s return to Alachua County as an acclaimed coach and not just the forever favorite son of a program he helped build once and then built again.

If you had them open, maybe you saw Florida lose 42-13 to Missouri.

But it’s been eight years and three coaches since then, and while Spurrier’s name is now on Florida Field, the Gators have been only intermittently good enough to aspire to his accomplishments. The cremains of Will Muschamp’s flameout formed the spine of a championship-caliber defense in 2015, only for a quarterback’s critical off-the-field error to sideswipe that season. An all-time trio of offensive playmakers couldn’t quite get the breaks necessary to overcome a dismal defense in 2020. There have been bad teams, too.

And through it all, there has been a fan base — Gator Nation, a state of mind if not a country with borders, one carved out of millions who were either around before or during Spurrier’s dominant decade or before or during Urban Meyer’s meteoric tenure — waiting for greatness to return, convinced it was a matter of time.

Florida defeating a Utah team ranked in the top 10 in the first game of Billy Napier’s tenure as head coach might not be a signal that the time has arrived — just that his Gators are ahead of schedule.

But if you closed your eyes, you could surely hear some echoes in The Swamp.

Mostly, those would be from cheers for Anthony Richardson that could have left your ears ringing. Florida’s supremely talented and equally thrilling redshirt sophomore quarterback played the best game of his young career on this Saturday night, throwing for 168 yards and rushing for another 104 while accounting for three of the Gators’ four rushing touchdowns.

His 45-yard sprint to the end zone in the second quarter was sublime — but his two-point conversion to put Florida up by a crucial three-point margin in the third quarter was stunning, with Richardson jumping and spinning away from two Utah defenders in the backfield before creating space to throw to a stationary Ja’Quavion Fraziars in the back corner of the end zone.

Were he not Anthony Richardson, it might have been unbelievable.

But were Florida’s defense as good on most plays as it was on the two most important ones the night, this game might have been a rout. Instead, Utah dropped a cinder block on the accelerator of a dump truck for the entirety of the second half, and ran over the Gators over and over again after halftime, grinding out four drives of 69 or more yards and only facing seven third downs in 41 plays over the final 30 minutes.

Yet the Gators found steel in their spines on a goal-to-go drive just after halftime, twice stoning the Utes on carries from the Florida 1. And after a final drive was given second life by Ventrell Miller’s dropped interception near midfield, Amari Burney extinguished any hopes for the Utes by snagging a Cameron Rising pass in the end zone with just seconds to play, denying Utah both a game-winning touchdown and the opportunity to kick a game-tying field goal after driving the length of the field.

Utah had twice as many trips to the red zone as Florida — but on its six forays, it mustered 23 points, while once settling for a field goal and once botching a two-point try. The Gators cashed in their trio of chances for 22 points.

And Florida did some mashing of its own pedals, rolling up 282 rushing yards and getting contributions from all of Montrell Johnson (77 rushing yards, one touchdown), Trevor Etienne (64 rushing yards on just five carries), and Nay’Quan Wright (a tough 39 yards). Richardson didn’t hit a single pass play of more than 23 yards — and leading receiver Ricky Pearsall’s four catches for 67 yards didn’t feel as important as Etienne’s touches — but the Gators took what the Utes would yield underneath, with Richardson making just one poor throw and otherwise avoiding the errors that had marred a freshman campaign that was otherwise often astonishing.

Two Florida fumbles also proved pivotal, with one by Johnson on the game’s opening series setting up a short touchdown drive for Utah and one by Etienne that squirted out on an explosive run in the fourth quarter fortunately bouncing back to his hands. Utah would not make a similar mistake until the game’s final play — back Tavion Thomas fumbled on the failed fourth-and-goal, but would have likely been shy of the goal line regardless — and it seemed for much of a game that neither team led by more than seven points that Florida’s first fumble would prove fateful.

The Gators proved good enough to play their way out of poor fortune instead.

And if they build on the determination they showed, can keep their dynamite quarterback healthy enough to keep powering what could be a potent run game, and find ways to develop a passing attack and improve on defense?

Well, it might just look similar with our eyes open this time.