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Florida Gators fall at No. 14 Utah Utes to start Billy Napier’s year 2

The Gators’ 4-game losing streak includes its worst scoring stretch since 1988.
Billy Napier's Florida Gators have lost four consecutive games after Thursday's defeat at Utah.
Billy Napier's Florida Gators have lost four consecutive games after Thursday's defeat at Utah. [ RICK BOWMER | AP ]
Published Sept. 1|Updated Sept. 1

SALT LAKE CITY — The Florida Gators hired Billy Napier to bring accountability, discipline and attention to detail to Gainesville.

Which makes the defining two-word phrase from Thursday night’s season-opening 24-11 loss at No. 14 Utah hard to fathom.

Equipment violation.

It came in the second quarter, after the Gators (0-1) made a rare third-down stop. Jason Marshall and Eugene Wilson both wore their No. 3 jerseys during the punt return — a rarely seen, inexcusable penalty for any team, let alone one with an army of analysts who are supposed to check and double-check every detail.

The 5-yard penalty gave the Utes (1-0) an automatic first down. They scored a touchdown three plays later to take a 14-3 lead that seemed insurmountable in front of the largest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium history (53,644).

The Florida Gators were off in Thursday's opener at No. 14 Utah.
The Florida Gators were off in Thursday's opener at No. 14 Utah. [ RICK BOWMER | AP ]

It’s far too early to start talking about Napier’s future one game into his second season, but if it spirals the equipment violation will join other recent Florida lowlights (two linemen blocking each other against Georgia Southern, Marco Wilson’s thrown shoe against LSU).

Napier said the gaffe was a miscommunication; Marshall isn’t supposed to be on the field in that specific, punt-safe scheme. Nobody, apparently, told him.

“That’s another thing that we control that we didn’t do the right way,” Napier said.

One of many. Too many.

Down 7-3 in the second quarter, the Gators got inside the red zone … and were flagged for a delay of game penalty on third down. On fourth and 1, they committed a false start penalty, forcing them to settle for a 31-yard field goal. Florida missed.

In the red zone in the third quarter, Florida lined up illegally on third and 1. The Gators then failed on third and fourth down to come away empty — part of the 11 consecutive failed third/fourth downs they started with. Those were among Florida’s three false starts and two illegal formations.

Napier called the nine penalties “surprising” and attributed some of them to inexperience. A dozen players were making their first career starts at Florida.

Maybe an excellent, supremely talented team could overcome those types of mistakes. But that description does not appear to fit these Gators, at least not after Week 1.

Utah sacked Florida quarterback Graham Mertz four times in the first three quarters.
Utah sacked Florida quarterback Graham Mertz four times in the first three quarters. [ RICK BOWMER | AP ]

Florida brought in Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz to add consistency and experience to an offense that had high highs and low lows under top-five NFL draft pick Anthony Richardson. Mertz led them to 8 yards in the second quarter.

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Though Mertz finished with a career-high 333 yards, he had this stretch on his dropbacks midway through the game: incompletion, incompletion, sack, incompletion, incompletion, sack, 4-yard pass (where the tight end slipped before a defender arrived), 1-yard completion and an interception on a pass that hit Ricky Pearsall in the hands.

Not all of it was his fault, of course. A completely rebuilt offensive line allowed five sacks. The running backs — expected to be a strength of this team — totaled 24 rushing yards at halftime. The secondary allowed a 70-yard touchdown pass on Utah’s first play from scrimmage. The retooled defensive front failed to generate enough pressure (zero sacks, two hurries). A garbage-time touchdown pass from Mertz to Caleb Douglas ended a Gators touchdown drought that spanned 118 minutes and 18 seconds, dating back to the fourth quarter at Florida State in last year’s regular-season finale.

The performance was ugly enough on its own, but it looks worse when you remember the way the Gators rallied for a 29-26 win over this Utah team in Napier’s debut a year ago at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In the 362 days since that thriller, Florida has lost eight of its 13 games. Its four-game losing streak includes:

• its first defeat at Vanderbilt in three decades

• a heartbreaker at FSU

• a 30-3 bowl beatdown by Oregon State where the only positive was a last-minute field goal that avoided a shutout

• an ugly loss to a Utah team without its star quarterback (Cam Rising), star tight end (Brant Kuithe), top tackling defensive lineman (Connor O’Toole) and all-conference defensive tackle (Junior Tafuna).

Florida’s 14 points over the last two games are its fewest since 1988 (three total points in losses to Auburn and Georgia).

Utah receiver Money Parks scored on the Utes' first play from scrimmage against Florida.
Utah receiver Money Parks scored on the Utes' first play from scrimmage against Florida. [ RICK BOWMER | AP ]

“I feel like we’re in the fight,” Napier said, “and we made tons of mistakes.”

Too many — starting with two No. 3s and the two-word blunder that makes the Gators an easy punching bag heading into next week’s home opener against McNeese.

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