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Gasparilla Bowl: Even with no ‘national title’ in sight, UCF still motivated for Monday

Journal: The Knights can become one of a handful of programs to total 35 wins over the past three seasons.
Marshall freshman Micah Abraham, an East Lake High alumnus, assists his teammates during the Gasparilla Bowl's annual "Bicycle Build" for local youths Friday in downtown Tampa. [JOEY KNIGHT  |  Times]
Marshall freshman Micah Abraham, an East Lake High alumnus, assists his teammates during the Gasparilla Bowl's annual "Bicycle Build" for local youths Friday in downtown Tampa. [JOEY KNIGHT | Times]
Published Dec. 21, 2019
Updated Dec. 21, 2019

TAMPA ― For the first time in three years, they have no New Year’s Six bowl ― much less national title ― to motivate them, which isn’t to suggest the UCF Knights enter the Gasparilla Bowl with no incentive.

Turns out, the stakes have only mildly diminished for the Knights (9-3), who can reach rarefied air with a victory Monday against Marshall (8-4) at Raymond James Stadium.

A triumph not only would give UCF three consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins for the first time in the program’s 41-year history, it would make the Knights one of only six Division I-A teams to win at least 35 games over the past three seasons.

The others (entering bowl season): Clemson (40), Ohio State (38), Alabama (37), Oklahoma (36) and Georgia (35).

“That’s elite company that we have an opportunity to be a part of,” Knights second-year coach Josh Heupel said.

Defensive tackle Anthony Montalvo, a Sickles High alumnus, said a 10th win would signify even more.

“Just to show that we’re still here,” he said. “Obviously we wanted to go 13-0, it didn’t happen, but we have next year to try to go 13-0. That 10th win will show that we’re still here, we’re still ready to play.”

Davis, Killins not expected to play

Don’t expect UCF top receiver Gabe Davis or No. 2 rusher Adrian Killins, both of whom will enter the NFL draft, to play Monday.

Heupel, presumably engaging in some bowl-week gamesmanship, still hasn’t addressed either’s status for the game. Davis (72 catches, 1,241 yards, 12 TDs), a junior, announced his decision to bypass his senior season via Twitter on Dec. 4. Killins (87 carries, 629 yards, seven TDs), a senior, announced on Thursday he would be moving on and transitioning “to the next chapter of my life.”

Abraham’s home turf … sort of

Marshall safety Micah Abraham, recently selected to the Conference USA all-freshman team, will become the third member of his family to roam the Raymond James Stadium turf Monday.

Related: College football bowl guide: A reason to care about all 40 games

His dad, Donnie, was a Bucs cornerback from 1996-2001, and older brother Devin made 37 career starts at safety for USF from 2014-17. Micah, who chose Marshall over USF and Boston College, has started the past five games and enters the Gasparilla Bowl with 33 tackles and three pass breakups.

“Coming in, I knew I was gonna have to compete,” said Micah Abraham, an East Lake High alumnus who will be making his RayJay debut.

“I didn’t know I was gonna get this much playing time, but as long as I keep working hard and keep doing what I know I can do and just keep grinding on a daily basis, I should be fine.”

Aged beef in bulk

Not surprisingly, the most prolific runner in Conference USA (Marshall tailback Brendan Knox) has operated behind its most seasoned offensive line.

Related: Hometown roots definitely a bonus for Gasparilla Bowl executive

Three Thundering Herd linemen ― center Levi Brown (49), right tackle Tarik Adams (36) and left tackle Will Ulmer (34) ― have at least 34 career starts. Left guard Alex Mollette and right guard Cain Madden have 22 and 21, respectively.

All are redshirt juniors except Brown, who’s a redshirt senior. The unit has remained intact for 11 of Marshall’s 12 games this season, during which Knox (the C-USA MVP) has run for 1,284 yards.

“All of them have plus-30 starts,” Montalvo said. “They’ve all been playing with each other, so they all have that connection, so I think that helps ’em.”

Odds and ends

Marshall enters Monday’s game with seven consecutive bowl victories, the longest active streak in college football. … UCF receiver Marlon Williams, when asked if it feels strange playing a bowl game in the home stadium of his rival (USF): “Yeah, it is weird, but this is our town so it’s okay.” … Though UCF offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby has departed for the same job at Ole Miss, don’t expect a significant effect on game day; Heupel calls the plays.

Gasparilla Bowl

UCF (9-3, AAC) vs. Marshall (8-4, C-USA)

2:30 p.m. Monday, Raymond James Stadium

TV: ESPN

Find tickets here

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