Home Improvement: Gators Seek to Rebound from Mistake-Filled Loss at Utah with McNeese Ahead in Swamp Opener

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Moments before Gators head coach Billy Napier walked into his postgame press conference Thursday night in Salt Lake City, Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes stepped to the mic in an adjacent glassed-in room as Utes fans watched from outside.

Barnes could be heard each time someone opened the door to the cinder-blocked room Napier was about to enter.

“That’s the stuff you talk about when you’re a little kid,” Barnes said of his 70-yard touchdown pass on Utah’s first play of a 24-11 win over the Gators.

Napier had few highlights to discuss during his media session, and little had changed Monday when Napier, 2,200 miles away from Rice-Eccles Stadium, took his place behind the lectern inside the Heavener Football Training Center to unpack further what transpired in a disappointing season opener for the Gators.

The Gators suffered from an array of self-inflicted wounds in the loss to the Utes, most notably nine penalties for 45 yards — several coming at crucial moments. They have an opportunity to hush some of the criticism starting Saturday when McNeese of the Southland Conference visits Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for Florida’s home opener.

The Gators have lost four consecutive games dating to last season and need a victory in the worst way.

“I think the key to the drill here is that we don’t waste this experience,” Napier said Monday. “I think, just having met with the [team’s] leadership group … we’re in great position to do that. We can’t waste a minute blaming or complaining or sulking, thinking about the past. We have to learn. We have to change. We have to adapt. We have to grow.

“So the lesson here is that there’s no one single individual to blame here, other than me, okay? I think ultimately the buck stops here. We’re going to go fix it. That’s what I would tell you.”

The Gators have won 33 consecutive home openers since the start of the 1990 season, the longest active streak in the country. While McNeese enters as a heavy underdog — the FCS-level Cowboys lost 52-34 to Tarleton in their season opener — Florida is focused on taking care of its issues more than the opponent.

The Gators have no choice based on the way they played at Utah.

“This is a place that has winning expectations,” Napier said. “This week for us is about improvement. We have to compete each day like we’re playing the best competition we will play this year. I think that was the message from the leadership group. We look forward to getting this taste out of our mouth.”

A rash of unforced procedural penalties thwarted Gators’ drives at Utah, perhaps the most critical coming early in the second quarter with Utah facing fourth-and-3 at the Gators’ 49-yard line. The Gators were flagged five yards for having two players — defensive back Jason Marshall Jr. and freshman receiver Eugene Wilson III — both in No. 3 jerseys on the field simultaneously. The miscue gave Utah a first down, and four plays later, change-of-pace quarterback Nate Johnson scored on a 27-yard run to provide Utah with a 14-3 lead.

The deflating penalty remained a topic of conversation four days later on Monday.

“It kind of sucks,” Marshall said. “We stopped them, then we got the penalty, turned around, had to go back out there. It was like a sudden change. It was just a lack of communication. I didn’t know he was going to be out there at that time. We’re going to fix that.”

Barber, Austin (2023 at Utah)
Offensive lineman Austin Barber joins teammates to sing the alma mater following Thursday’s loss at Utah. (Photo: Molly Kaiser/UAA Communications)

Beyond the unforced mistakes, the Gators allowed five sacks and managed only 13 yards rushing on 21 carries when considering the sack yardage.

With transfer quarterback Graham Mertz taking over behind a rebuilt offensive line and a young group of receivers, the running back duo of Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne figure to play a significant role in UF’s offensive success in 2023. Johnson finished with just six yards on three carries; Etienne 25 yards on seven attempts.

That must change for the Gators to be a productive offensive unit.

“Looking back at it, that’s something we could have been a little bit more committed to,” Napier said of establishing the run. “There’s no doubt about it. But we get into, all of a sudden, it’s 17-3, 24-3, that affects the approach you take. I do think Utah has something to do with that, as well.”

Mertz’s performance was a plus for the Gators. He finished 31 of 44 for a career-high 333 yards. His 19-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Douglas kept the Gators within striking distance in the fourth quarter.

Still, Mertz faced constant pressure from a Utah defensive front that was missing two regular starters and a third hobbled by injury.

Gators offensive lineman Austin Barber has heard the noise from fans since Thursday’s loss and understands their frustration. He made sure to join many of his teammates in singing the alma mater following the game and acknowledging the Gators fans who made the trip to Utah.

“This game is not what we wanted. I think everybody knows that. Obviously, there’s disappointment. You don’t want to lose your first game. Everyone is excited for it. It was a big game.

“You just gotta learn from it. This whole experience is a big learning process for everybody on this team. I think that we’ll come back and learn from it, practice hard, do what we have to do to be prepared for the next game.”

One thing is certain: they will have critical eyes watching how they respond.


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