Prior to the Gasparilla Bowl, Florida and UCF had met twice on the gridiron. Both games resulted in blowout Florida victories, as the Gators outscored the Knights 100-27 over two contests. But behind special performances from Isaiah Bowser and Ryan O’Keefe, UCF made sure Florida didn’t make it three straight. The Knights capped off head coach Gus Malzahn‘s first season in Orlando with a 29-17 victory over the Gators. It marked UCF’s third Gasparilla Bowl victory in their fifth appearance in the game. UCF improved to 9-4 – bouncing back from a 6-4 campaign in 2020. The Knights were coming off a three-year stretch with a record of 35-4. Meanwhile, Florida ends a season they’ll want to forget quickly. The Gators dropped to 6-7 – their worst mark since 2017. Florida had ended the past three seasons ranked inside the top 15.
Gasparilla Bowl: How it happened
The Knights accomplished this feat on the strength of a run game that had their way with the Gators. Bowser toted the rock 35 times for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Sparked by a 74-yard rush, O’Keefe ran for 110 while reeling in seven catches for 85 yards. UCF also dominated in special teams – kicker Daniel Obarski was 3-4 on field goals, while Florida missed two field goal attempts. The Gators kept pace with the ground attack for a while before fading in the second half; Malik Davis led a three-headed rushing attack with 86 yards. Quarterback Emory Jones carried 10 times for 62 yards, and Dameon Pierce bulled his way to 57 yards.
The game took a little while to get going with each team exchanging three punts in the opening ten minutes. However, each offense found the end zone once in the first half, but a missed extra point kept UCF behind the pace, 10-9. The two squads traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but UCF knocked through a field goal to take the lead for good with mere minutes left in the period. Florida didn’t score in the final frame, as UCF added ten more points. The Gators had four drives after UCF took the lead and gained a first down in just one of them. An intense rivalry clash ended in a whimper as UCF gradually buried their SEC opponent.
Gasparilla Bowl: 5 moments that led to UCF Victory
UCF Makes 1st Quarter Stand
The Gasparilla Bowl got off to a very slow start. Each team punted two times, with just a single combined first down. However, the Gators started moving the ball on their third drive, getting inside the UCF 30. However, the Knights forced consecutive Florida incompletions, as the Gators opted to not attempt a 44-yard field goal. The 4th down stop gave UCF’s sluggish offense more time to get going as they search for holes in the Florida defense.
Johnny Richardson Cracks A 38-yard run
After three drives totaling 13 yards on ten plays, UCF needed an offensive spark. That came from Johnny Richardson who notched 69 all-purpose yards on Thursday evening. The bulk of that came in a very key run on 2nd and 8 with UCF trailing 7-0. The Knights had garnered just one play of more than five yards to that point. However, Richardson took the handoff and broke through the line. About six yards into the run, Richardson cut back to his right to avoid an oncoming linebacker and then outraced the Florida secondary for 38 yards. After that, UCF punched in their first touchdown. Bowser did the tough sledding, scrapping out the final twenty yards and scoring the touchdown, but Richardson’s drive sparked a nonexistent UCF offense into action.
12 plays, 4:53
The two teams traded scores early in the second half. Due to the missed extra point, UCF trailed 17-16. However, the Knights needed a response after Florida retook the lead. By no means did UCF execute a clean drive, but they got the job done. UCF nearly caught an awful break when the kickoff was drilled into one of their players; however, Florida muffed the recovery and the Knights ended up with prime field position. Over 55 yards and 12 plays, UCF grinded their way down the field. Two Florida penalties aided the drive. UCF only notched one non-penalty play of more than four yards on the drive. However, the Knights converted a pair of third downs to work their way into field goal range. Obarski booted a short field goal for the 19-17 lead.
UCF Forces Three-and-Out, Scores In One Play
In baseball, the term for limiting an opposing offense after a big inning is called a ‘shutdown inning’. For football, a similar concept would be the ‘shutdown drive’. Ugly though it may have been, UCF had another lead at 19-17 and needed to keep the momentum rolling their way. They did just that, forcing a quick third down. An offensive pass interference call bumped Florida back 15 yards, and the Gators ultimately punted without a first down. Having harnessed the momentum from the lead change, the Knights then delivered the dagger. Quarterback Mikey Keene, who was largely a facilitator more than an X-Factor in the contest, found O’Keefe breaking free for a 54-yard touchdown on the first play of the drive. That extended the lead to 26-17, making the clock a significant enemy for Florida.
Florida Misses Second Field Goal
The Gators had already missed one field goal, but down nine points with 10 minutes to play, they couldn’t afford many more missed opportunities. Unfortunately, another scoring opportunity went by the wayside for Florida. Completions of 20 and 30 yards moved the Gators swiftly to the UCF 30, but Florida stalled horribly. On 3rd and 5, Jones was swarmed for a 2-yard loss. That forced a 45-yard field goal attempt, and the Gators missed it. That kept the deficit at two possessions, and the Knights iced the game with a 5-minute drive that ended in their third field goal.
The SEC drops to 0-2 in bowl games this season – with both losses to Group of 5 opponents. Missouri lost to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl on Wednesday night. Florida heads into the offseason with questions to answer and a new head coach in Billy Napier. UCF ends their season with six wins in their last seven contests.