GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson had shown flashes of his potential as a backup for the Gators last season. On Saturday, he showed exactly what he could do as their starter.
Richardson had 274 total yards and three touchdowns as Florida upset No. 7 Utah 29-26 in front of a raucous 90,799, the largest crowd for a season opener in school history. He did everything the Gators needed with one highlight play after another -- from a dazzling 2-point conversion that left multiple defenders lying on the turf, to a huge fourth-and-2 conversion, to the game-winning 2-yard touchdown run with 1:25 remaining.
Richardson finished with a career-high three rushing touchdowns Saturday after entering the game with three in his career. The performance helped coach Billy Napier get his first win at Florida while handing the Utes a heartbreaking loss to open a season that began as a sleeper for the College Football Playoff.
"My wife could call plays with that guy at quarterback," Napier said of Richardson. "His legs, they're a difference maker. You saw it tonight. The fourth-down play, in the last drive. The 2-point conversion, I mean, come on. He did that exact same thing in practice one day. I'm talking about the exact scenario.
"I think we're figuring out here that this guy's a pretty special player."
Richardson said he had pregame jitters but worked them out after the first few series. With the game on the line and Florida trailing 26-22 with the clock winding down, Richardson said Napier told him to go score the game winner.
"My heart kind of froze," Richardson said. "I'd never really heard those words. Especially in a situation like that, with a crowd as big as that. Just having the ball in my hands, I feel like the team trusts me. The coaches trust me to make a play, make something happen. I'm glad they trust me for that."
Still, Utah got the ball back with 1:25 left in the game and drove all the way down to the Florida 6-yard line. On second-and-goal, Amari Burney intercepted Cameron Rising in the end zone to clinch the victory. The interception marred a solid performance from Rising, who went 22-of-32 for 216 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 91 yards.
"It wasn't Cam's best throw," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "I'm sure he'd like that back."
Utah missed several opportunities in the red zone that ultimately cost the Utes the victory. Twice, they got inside the 6-yard line only to come up with zero points. Florida, meanwhile, converted its red zone trips into touchdowns.
At times, the Utah offense pushed Florida all over the field, including on those two red zone drives. Utah had 230 yards rushing and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. But Florida found a way to make the plays when it counted, and its offensive line found a way to push Utah around, too. The Gators rushed for 283 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 7.3 yards a carry.
A lot of that is because of Richardson, who had 106 yards on the ground. His ability to run and create plays makes him a dynamic player, one who still has a full season ahead of him to continue to improve.
But perhaps more than what Richardson did is what Florida showed in a game that went down to the wire.
A year ago, Florida lost six of its final nine games after starting the season at No. 13 in the preseason rankings. Coach Dan Mullen was fired before the season even ended, as many questioned the direction of the program because the rapid decline seemed to happen so fast.
Napier came in and emphasized a disciplined approach, and one on offense that would have to rely on the run, thanks to Richardson and a running back room that includes Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson Jr. and true freshman Trevor Etienne, younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne.
Napier noted when he took the job, one of his friends who had worked at Florida previously told him that the program had the most competitive players he had ever been around. He believes that competitiveness allowed Florida to pull off the upset.
"This group's got fight in it," Napier said. "They've got a little bit of a different edge about them. The execution wasn't always what we wanted out there and we've got so much work to do. We were fortunate to overcome many mistakes tonight, but the intangibles that the team showed, they continued to respond right up until the end and they made a play.
"We've got work to do. We won a game, and it's a special moment. We're going to enjoy it and we're going to come back in tomorrow and get ready for SEC play."