GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida fans anticipated Saturday night the same way Apple enthusiasts chatter on message boards for weeks whenever the tech company is about to release the latest iPhone or MacBook.
One night UF head coach Billy Napier debuted, the Gators reintroduced Anthony Richardsonthis time firmly as QB1.
They did it against No. 7-ranked Utah at packed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and in front of the largest season-opening crowd (90,799) in school history.
How was it?
If Richardson were a tech gadget instead of flesh and bone, every store in town would have a line Sunday morning to buy one.
After an offseason in which Napier did their best to quell the hype surrounding the dynamic sophomore, Richardson put on a show that had fans buzzing along University Avenue following the 29 win Florida’s -26 on the Utes.
Orange & Blue were not alone.
Former Alabama quarterback and media analyst Greg McElroy had this to say on Twitter: Anthony Richardson is the closest thing I’ve seen to Vince Young in a LONG TIME.
Praises? Absolutely. Hyperbola? Maybe. Irrational? Certainly not.
It’s safe to say that Richardson’s Heisman Trophy odds will improve dramatically this week simply because he lived up to the preseason hype. Richardson rushed for 106 yards and three touchdowns and had a career-high 168 yards.
He did it under pressure too.
The Gators fell behind early when the Utes recovered a fumble from a newcomer Montrell Johnson Jr. and turned it into a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. The Gators never flinched with Richardson making most of the shots.
“The only thing I can tell you about Anthony is he’s sitting in this locker room right now, and he’s thinking about the six or eight games where he could have done a little bit better,” said Napier. “That’s what I like about him. He’s very critical of himself. We all know the kid has physical talent. We’ve known that for a long time.”
Richardson put on a memorable performance with more than a dozen family members in the stands, making the short trip across town to see the former Gainesville Eastside star make his first career debut at The Swamp. Richardson responded with clutch play after clutch play when the Gators needed him most.
He scored on 2, 45 and 2 yard runs. His last run scored gave the Gators the lead with 1:25 remaining. Utah threatened to ruin Richardson’s special night to Gators linebacker Amari Burney intercepted Utes quarterback Cameron Rising in the end zone with 17 seconds left.
“It was different,” Richardson said of the last scoring campaign, a 14-game, 75-yard walk with the Gators trailing 26-22. “Coach Nape told me: ‘I’ll try to score here. A winner of the game.’ My heart kind of froze. I had never really heard those words. Especially in a situation like this. With a crowd that big.
“I was thinking a lot. I just had the ball in my hands. I feel like the team trusts me. The coaches trust me to make a play, to make things happen. I’m glad they trust me for that.”
Napier and Offensive Coordinator Sale Rob devised a game plan that kept things simple for Richardson, and they called for ample help in the running game as Johnson (75 yards), Trevor Etienne (64) and Nay’Quan Wright (39) combined for 178 yards. More importantly, Richardson did not commit turnovers.
In his only other career start, a loss to Georgia last season, Richardson threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.
Richardson did everything the Gators needed him to on Saturday, including a fake highlighter on a two-point conversion that resulted in a scoring pass to receiver Ja’Quavion Fraziars which put the Gators ahead 22-19 early in the fourth quarter. On the play, Richardson used a foul ball to avoid his former Gators teammate, Utah linebacker Mohamed Diabateand spun to avoid Lander Barton before launching to a wide open Fraziars in the back corner of the end zone.
Oohs and aahs echoed through the stadium as soon as the play unfolded.
Richardson’s teammates weren’t surprised.
“Anthony’s biggest growth, in my opinion, has been his leadership role,” defensive tackle Gervon Dexter said. “He always had the ability that you see now. It’s just the most important thing is that he asserts himself as a leader and not just leading by example, but now he’s become a vocal leader in the team and lets us know what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s right.”
Richardson did a lot of good against the Utes, helping ensure Napier didn’t become the first Gators head coach to lose his first game since Charley Pell 43 years ago.
He joined Tim Tebow (twice) and Jesse Palmer (once) as the only Gators quarterbacks since 1996 to rush for at least three touchdowns and pass for 150 yards in a game. He rushed for 100 yards in the season opener for the second straight season, albeit under very different circumstances.
Richardson even made his first career tackle that Napier probably could have lived without. But above all, Richardson has delivered much of the promise that others believe he can consistently deliver.
If he does, the hype will only intensify. Wins could also stack up. It’s a win-win for Napier and the Gators.
“Heck, my wife could call plays with this guy at quarterback,” Napier said. “I think we’re figuring out here that this guy is quite a special player.”
More than 90,000 witnesses on Saturday can testify to this.