SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah gave Florida a taste of the same suffocating defense the Utes have used to recently dominate Pac-12 opponents.
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 Rising still recovering from a knee injury he suffered in the Rose Bowl.
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.
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.
“They just always seemed like they had one extra guy,” Mertz said.
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.
Barnes said he learned he was starting for Utah 1 1/2 weeks before Thursday’s game. His first play touchdown gave the entire team a major energy boost.
“That’s the type of stuff you think of as kids, so it was great to go out there and actually put it on tape,” Barnes said.
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.
Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson, Jr. combined for 31 yards on 10 carries after averaging 120 yards rushing for the Gators last season. With their top two runners rendered ineffective, Florida routinely faced third-and-long situations over four quarters.
“We got to get production out of the two backs,” Florida coach Billy Napier said. “We got to give them an opportunity to impact the game.”
Jack Bouwmeester averaged 51.8 yards on six punts, pinning three inside the 20. Bouwmeester became the first Utah punter since Tom Hackett against Colorado in 2014 to have two different punts cover 60 or more yards in the same game. He had punts of 64 yards and 61 yards in the third quarter.
“It’s a game changer for the defense,” Utes safety Cole Bishop said. “You can do so much more when they’re backed up and don’t have many options.”
A convincing victory over an SEC opponent will likely bolster Utah’s position in the upcoming AP poll.