Gainesville, Fla. — Florida State quarterback Anthony Richardson showed his potential last season as a backup for the Gators. On Saturday, he showed exactly what he can do as a starter.
Richardson combined for 274 yards and three touchdowns as Florida defeated No. 7 Utah 29-26 in front of a raucous 90,799 crowd, the largest crowd for a season opener in school history. He’s done everything the Gators need — from dizzying 2-point conversions that put multiple defenders on the grass, to huge 4-and-2 conversions, to huge 4-and-2 conversions in game after game. Game-winning 2-yard touchdown with 1:25 left.
Richardson finished with a career-high 3-point rushing touchdown Saturday after entering the game with a career 3-pointer. The performance helped coach Billy Napier to his first win in Florida while allowing the Utes to start a season that started as a sleeper in the college football playoffs with a heartbreaking loss.
“My wife can play with that quarterback guy,” Napier said of Richardson. “His legs, they’re a different maker. You saw that tonight. Fourth hit, in last drive. 2-point conversion, I mean, come on. He did it in practice one day. Same thing. I’m talking about the exact scene.
“I think we found this guy here to be a very special player.”
Richardson said he had pregame jitters, but it resolved after the first few series. With Florida trailing 26-22 and the clock ticking as the game went on, Richardson said Napier told him to go and score the game winner.
“My heart is a little stiff,” Richardson said. “I never really heard those words. Especially in a situation like this, with such a large crowd. As long as I have the ball in my hands, I feel like the team trusts me. The coaches trust me to play and make things happen. Happened. I’m glad they trusted me.
Still, Utah got the ball back with 1:25 left and drove all the way to the Florida 6-yard line. On the second goal, Amari Burnie intercepted Cameron Rising in the end zone for the win. Interceptions derailed Rising’s solid performance, as he went 22-of-32 for 216 yards, touchdowns and 91 yards.
“It wasn’t Cam’s best pitch,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “I’m sure he’ll like it.”
Utah missed several chances in the red zone, which ultimately cost Utah the victory. Twice, they entered the 6-yard line and scored zero points. Meanwhile, Florida turned its red zone tour into a touchdown.
At times, Utah’s offense pushed Florida onto the field, including those two red-zone drives. Utah had 230 rushing yards and averaged 5.9 yards per push. But Florida State found a way to play when it mattered, and its offensive line found a way to push Utah. The Gators rushed for 283 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards per carry.
That’s thanks in large part to Richardson, who has 106 yards on the ground. His ability to run and create games has made him a dynamic player who has a full season to continue improving.
But perhaps more than Richardson did was what Florida showed in one game.
A year ago, Florida had lost six of its final nine games after finishing 13th in the preseason. Coach Dan Mullen was fired even before the end of the season, as many questioned the direction of the program because the rapid decline seemed to happen so quickly.
Napier came in and emphasized a disciplined approach, and an offense that had to rely on the run, thanks to Richardson and a running back room that included Louisiana transfers Montrell Johnson and True freshman Trevor Etienne, the younger brother of the Jacksonville Jaguars, runs back to Travis Etienne.
Napier noted that when he accepted the job, a friend of his who had worked in Florida had told him that the program had the most competitive players he had ever seen. Competitiveness, he argues, is what keeps Florida out of the woods.
“The group was fighting inside,” Napier said. “They have a little bit of a different edge. Execution is not always what we want, we have a lot of work to do. We were lucky to overcome a lot of mistakes tonight, but the intangibles team showed, they responded to the end, they played a role.
“We have work to do. We won a game, it’s a special moment. We’re going to enjoy it and we’ll be back tomorrow to get ready for the SEC game.”