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UCF beats Florida Gators in Gasparilla Bowl to win state championship

Make no mistake: The Knights are the best team in the state after their win at Raymond James Stadium.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn celebrated the Knights' Gasparilla Bowl win (and unofficial state title) Thursday night.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn celebrated the Knights' Gasparilla Bowl win (and unofficial state title) Thursday night. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2021|Updated Dec. 24, 2021

TAMPA — UCF can put up another unofficial championship at the Bounce House. The Knights earned the honor as Florida’s best team by beating the Gators 29-17 in Thursday night’s Gasparilla Bowl.

“We’ve always thought that,” bowl MVP Ryan O’Keefe said. “Now we’ve finally got the proof.”

Four quarters of proof, in front of an evenly split crowd of 63,669 at Raymond James Stadium.

“We beat them handily,” Knights coach Gus Malzahn said several times.

His Knights (9-4) won on offense, putting up 436 total yards. That’s more than Florida (6-7) allowed to Georgia, Alabama or Tennessee (led by former Knights coach Josh Heupel).

UCF running back Isaiah Bowser rushed for two touchdowns.
UCF running back Isaiah Bowser rushed for two touchdowns. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

O’Keefe was the best player on the field, racking up 251 all-purpose yards (110 rushing, 85 receiving and 56 on kickoff returns). He set up a third-quarter touchdown by ripping off a 74-yard rush —the longest in the bowl’s 14-year history — and broke the game open with a 54-yard touchdown catch.

Isaiah Bowser was the second-best player on the field, pounding the ball 35 times for 155 yards and two scores. With Bowser, Malzahn said UCF was able to “impose our will” on Florida in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t wrong.

UCF won on defense. The Knights forced three three-and-outs in the second half and foiled 11 of Florida’s 13 third-down conversions. They held Florida quarterback Emory Jones to 14 of 36 passing for 171 yards.

UCF defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant (1) brings down Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) in the fourth quarter.
UCF defensive lineman Big Kat Bryant (1) brings down Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) in the fourth quarter. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And UCF won on special teams, taking advantage of Florida failures on kickoffs (plural) and missed field goals (also plural).

The Knights were simply better.

Florida fans may try to take solace from the Gators’ miscues. Dropped passes. A receiver tripping in the red zone on fourth down. Jones overthrowing two receivers (Trent Whittemore and Justin Shorter) streaking wide open toward the end zone.

One of Florida’s top defensive players, Ty’Ron Hopper, was ejected for throwing a punch. Personal fouls by Gervon Dexter and Brenton Cox helped lead to a UCF field goal, and Florida committed at least three false-start penalties.

None of those issues are new.

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“A lot of you guys in here have covered us this year, and you’ve seen us make mistakes,” interim coach Greg Knox said. “You can’t make those mistakes and expect to win games.”

The Gators made too many of them during the last half of the season, which is they were led by an interim coach rather than a full-time one. Thursday night was an accurate reflection of the 2021 Gators — the same team that beat Florida Atlantic, USF and FSU (which beat Miami). By winning Thursday, UCF has a victory or transitive victory over every team in the state in this historically bad year.

Related: Worst. Year. Ever. What went wrong with Florida college football?

Florida should not make any usual bowl-game excuses about a lack of motivation, either. Yes, the Gators are transitioning from an interim staff to one led by Billy Napier. And they were led by a quarterback (Jones) who is probably headed for the transfer portal. And they played two players (receiver Jacob Copeland and outside linebacker Lloyd Summerall) who are already in the portal.

Incoming head Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier is seen on the sidelines.
Incoming head Florida Gators head coach Billy Napier is seen on the sidelines. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

But their presence just shows how seriously UF took the game. Instead of letting young players gain valuable experience, the way they did in last year’s Cotton Bowl, the Gators deployed players who won’t be a part of their future to try to win. They did not.

Related: Florida’s 2021 warning signs were flashing in Gators’ Cotton Bowl blowout

Any lingering questions about Florida’s interest in a low-level exhibition should have disappeared when some Gators took part in mutual postgame shoving with UCF.

So Florida fans should make no excuses, and UCF fans should accept none. There’s no disputing this title.

Hang the banner at the Bounce House. Make another trophy for the case.

After Thursday night, UCF is the best team in the state.

Odds and ends

• Shorter was carted off the field after taking a scary hit in the final minutes. A trainer immediately ran onto the field to check on him, and Shorter lifted a hand to the crowd as he left. ESPN reported that he was talking with the training staff. Knox did not have an update on his condition after the game.

• Though Yahoo! and ESPN have reported that Jones will enter the transfer portal, Jones repeatedly declined to talk about his future. He said he will discuss his options with his mom and family soon, but it is “of course” possible that he’ll choose to stay at Florida.

• • •

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