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TAMPA, FL — The buzz heading into the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl was among the top among games in the 2021 Bowl Season. The UCF Knights (8-4) and the Florida Gators (6-6) were battling for bragging rights in the state. The Knights were the first to earn bowl eligibility in the Sunshine State and now they are able to brag even louder getting the victory, 29-17.
Both teams went a total of six drives before the scoring began. The Gators put up points on the board first when running back Dameon Pierce ran in a two-yard touchdown late in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, after converting on a fourth-and-five, UCF running back Isaiah Bowser, back from injury, ran three plays in a row to eventually leading to a three-yard score. After a failed two-point conversion trick play, UCF was down 7-6. The offense leaned on Bowser as Knights’ fans hoped they would and he carried the ball 35 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
Both teams traded field goals before heading to the locker room with the Gators leading, 10-9.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones struggled to pass the ball throughout the game, including missing a wide-open Trent Whitemore more than once for what would have inevitably been touchdowns.
Jones finished with 14-of-36 for 171 yards on the evening. He also rushed for 60 yards on 10 carries. Malik Davis and Pierce were the biggest offensive force for the Gators, as they combined for 143 yards running the ball on 20 carries with two touchdowns.
UCF’s quarterback Mikey Keene had a rough start himself but finished 14-of-22 for 144 yards and a touchdown. The scoring play was a 54-yarder to wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe, which was the signature play on the night. As O’Keefe scored, he held up two fingers to pay tribute to former UCF player Otis Anderson, who tragically passed away in late November after the end of the regular season.
O’Keefe was named the game’s MVP as he led UCF not only in receiving yards with 86 on seven catches, but also with 110 yards on the ground on four carries with a touchdown. The scoring run was good for 74 yards, which was not only a season record for the Knights but a Gasparilla Bowl record.
Throughout the season, head coach Gus Malzahn preached big plays and their importance to the offense. With the two big gains from O’Keefe, Bowser and running back Johnny Richardson (two caries of 30 yards or more), Malzahn had plenty to be happy about.
“Our guys executed and were able to make big plays,” said coach Malzahn. “And of course, big Bowser; [we] started leaning on him with our offensive line and it was a good combination and in the fourth quarter, we were able to impose our will, run the ball downhill and take time off the clock. It was a good quality win.”
After the game, there was a scuffle between the two teams in the middle of the field. During this exchange, UCF linebacker Tatum Bethune was grabbed from behind before disengaging from the scrum. When asked if this game could be the makings of a future rivalry, Bethune smiled and answered, “They could start a rivalry but we still got the ‘W’. So they can be mad all they want, we’re just happy we got the win.”
With the Knights officially joining the Power 5 as early as 2023, the Gasparilla Bowl could be the game that starts such a rivalry in years to come.