The Gators’ 24-11 loss Thursday night in was not nearly as close as the final score, raising red flags across the board and undercutting the sentiment an offseason roster overhaul might transform the program.
Three things learned during the UF’s disappointing season opener:
QB Graham Mertz will not last the season at this rate
Utah sacked Mertz five times and delivered enough punishment to concern his coach.
“Mertz got beat up a little bit and we need to keep him clean in the future,” Napier said.
Mertz was vulnerable behind an offensive line with five new starters after a right foot injury sidelined veteran center Kingsley Eguakun. While UF’s issues up front went deeper than one player, inconsistent push and protection led to their lowest regular-season point total since a 34-7 loss in 2021 to Georgia and its record-setting defense.
Utah was not even at full strength. Out with injuries were top tackle Junior Tafuna and end Connor O’Toole. Yet the Gators managed just 61 rushing yards on 15 carries, not including sacks and a kneel down.
Without a steady run game, a staple of Napier’s attack, the game landed on Mertz’s shoulders. The 22-year-old in his 33rd start responded well at times, but also had his struggles.
Mertz, who arrived after four seasons at Wisconsin, finished 31 of 44 for 333 yards, his first 300-yard game, and had a 19-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Douglas. He also had a seven-pass stretch bridging the two halves featuring three incompletions, two sacks and an interception on the UF 11-yard line leading to a Utah touchdown.
Mertz did not deflect blame.
“I’m never going to point a finger at my O-line,” he said. “There’s always room for improvement and I’m never going to point a finger at anybody else besides myself.”
Mertz’s transfer after an inconsistent career at Wisconsin did not stir celebration in Gator Nation. But at Utah, he was generally composed, moved the offense well at times, including a 13-play, 98-yard scoring drive, and is the Gators’ best option by a long shot.
Defense acquits itself after nightmarish start
The enthusiasm over first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong didn’t last long — one play, in fact. Utah backup quarterback Bryson Barnes connected with Money Parks for a 70-yard touchdown on the Utes’ first offensive snap.
The Gators were unable to generate any pressure, the backbone of Armstrong’s scheme, top cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. lost a step to Parker and Michigan transfer safety R.J. Moten was slow to provide help.
On the Utes’ next series, Barnes completed a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-10, rekindling memories of 2022 when UF ranked 129th of 131 teams nationally in third-down defense.
But the Gators soon tightened up and ultimately held the Utes to 270 total yards and 3 of 13 on third down.
“The opening play was a big one,” sophomore linebacker Shemar James said. “But we bounced back strongly.”
James, who finished with a game-high 13 tackles, led the way.
The Utes’ other two touchdowns followed UF miscues, a penalty during a punt return to give Utah a first down and Mertz’s interception.
The frequency of Florida’s mistakes was inexcusable
When UF hired Napier to replace Dan Mullen, attention to detail was a key selling point.
The Gators too often looked undisciplined, disorganized and unfocused at Utah.
A team and coaching staff on the same page do not commit three penalties in the red zone, costing them points both times. Players on each side of the football with duplicate numbers might cause confusion for the public address announcer but should not on the sideline.
After Marshall and Eugene Wilson III drew a penalty during a punt return for being on the field at the same time, Utah got back the ball and scored three plays later. Napier has a legion of staff, yet no special teams coordinator who might have prevented the head-scratching sequence.
The Gators’ nine penalties were for just 46 yards, but they added up.
In light of the Gators’ gaffes, Napier pointed to a roster with dozens of new players, a reliance on a number of young players and season-opening growing pains.
“There’s going to be a ton of teachable moments for a lot of young players, a lot of new players to our team,” he said.
On Thursday night, some wondered about who’s doing the teaching.
Edgar Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org