GAINESVILLE — So this is how you want to do it?
No easing into expectations, no taking a minute to get settled? Just walk right into a stadium with 90,799 people and blow their freaking minds?
Say this about the new guy, he knows how to say hello.
Florida fans had been waiting months to see the latest boy wonder of the college coaching world, and Billy Napier somehow managed to exceed even an optimist’s best hopes in his Gator debut.
He took a team that finished last season in the dumps and introduced it to America on Saturday night by beating No. 7 Utah 29-26 in a thriller that will undoubtedly ramp up anticipation to starry-eyed levels.
He gambled when the moment demanded it, and played it cool when the situation was right. His team was (mostly) disciplined, his quarterback was (occasionally) brilliant and his explanation was (entirely) modest. And when it was over, he walked off to fireworks and dance music.
“Pretty good football game, huh,” he grinned.
I guess, around here, patience is overrated.
This season was supposed to be the start of an overhaul. A gradual start to a new era after a series of disappointing recruiting classes and a collection of also-ran seasons under three lukewarm coaches.
And, maybe, that’s still how it will play out. Maybe there will be obvious growing pains ahead.
But Napier, 43, just accelerated the hopes of a lot of fans and likely caught the attention of a few coaches in the Southeastern Conference with the way the Gators played Saturday night.
“A win like that is only going to boost our confidence,” said running back Montrell Johnson, who gained 75 yards and scored a touchdown.
This, my friends, was not a fluke. The Gators may have caught a break here and there, but playing against the defending Pac-10 champions, they were the better team for a good portion of the night.
When given the opportunity, they were more physical. When given a crack, they were more explosive. When backed up to the wall, they were more aggressive.
They gained a handful of more yards than Utah, they played to a standstill in the turnover battle and they were the better team in the red zone.
“This group has got fight in it,” Napier said. “I don’t think I’ve said that publicly. One thing about our team that I respect is they compete.”
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So the defense is not yet playoff caliber, but it’s also not sieve it appeared to be last year. And when they needed it most, the Gators stopped Utah on four consecutive plays for a critical goal line stand on the opening drive of the second half.
And then, when Utah was threatening to score in the final minute, St. Petersburg’s Amari Burney sealed the victory with an interception in the endzone.
“To see that guy make that play, that’s a special moment for him,” Napier said.
And the growth of quarterback Anthony Richardson from freshman to sophomore makes you wonder what former coach Dan Mullen was missing last season.
Yes, Richardson is a year older but he looked far more poised than the hair-on-fire way he played at times last season.
Richardson looked comfortable running UF’s pro-style offense and quickly hit open receivers downfield. He had a handful of errant passes, but didn’t force plays that weren’t there.
And, when UF needed it, he pulled off moments that few other quarterbacks can make.
There was the play-action call late in the first half when he waited a beat in the pocket and then dashed down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown run for Florida’s first lead of the night.
There was the two-point conversion when he faked a jump pass with a defender in his face and then spun around and scrambled to the right before finding Ja’Quavion Fraziars in the back of the end zone.
There was the fourth down scramble on the game-winning drive when he paused for just a beat in the pocket to freeze Utah’s linebackers, and then took off around the right tackle for the first down.
“Anthony was great,” said Johnson. “I don’t care what he says, he’ll probably say he messed up a lot, but he played a great game.”
There is something to be said here about faith. And trust. And loyalty.
Napier has spent the better part of the summer convincing his players to follow him, and then he turned around on opening night and demonstrated his faith in them.
Particularly in Richardson.
Backed up within inches of their own goal line, he called for a passing play. Stuck on fourth down in the red zone, he went for the touchdown.
“We just knocked off a top-ranked team,” Richardson said. “There’s a lot of good energy in the locker room right now.”
It will only get crazier from here. The bar has been raised and the expectations have been juiced. Richardson played like a star, Napier sounded like a genius and Florida looked like it was back.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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