TAMPA, FL. – The tailgating outside Raymond James Stadium was going strong four hours before kickoff. Grills were working overtime and beverages were plentiful. Florida Gators and UCF Knights flags waved lazily in a gentle breeze that accompanied a gorgeous late afternoon.
It was a pregame scene far, far unlike that of the previous 12 Gasparilla Bowl games. A game, an in-state affair that sold out within three days of the matchup being announced, attracted 63,669 who witnessed UCF pull away with a 29-17 win Thursday night.
To say the atmosphere was charged during a game in which there were five lead changes and a few skirmishes would be an understatement. Indeed, the Gasparilla Bowl was on a stage like never before on a perfect night when the temperature at kickoff was 57 pleasant degrees.
UCF receiver Ryan O’Keefe was on stage as well. Literally. The game’s MVP (251 all-purpose yards), who had a 74-yard run to set up an early third-quarter touchdown and a 54-yard TD catch late in the third quarter that extended the Knights’ lead to 26-17, did his best to make sure Sunshine State bragging rights when his team’s way.
“We’ve always thought that,” he said, when asked if the win meant UCF was the state champ. “Now, we’ve finally got the proof.”
Both schools are within a couple of hours’ drive of Tampa where plenty of Gators and Knights alumni reside. So, it was a meaningful game even if both teams had records that were not what they thought they would be when the season got underway.
“It was a big win for us,” said UCF coach Gus Malzahn, whose team fought through numerous injuries to finish 9-4 in his first year in Orlando. “We have been talking about building our foundation this year and this was icing on the cake. The best is yet to come. I really believe that. So, it was a very, very big win in a lot of different ways.”
The Gators (6-7) took a 17-16 lead on a 19-yard touchdown run by Tampa native Malik Davis (seven carries, 86 yards) with 7:57 remaining in the third quarter. From that point on, and thanks largely to the running of Isaiah Bowser and the defense, the Knights scored the game’s final 13 points to secure their first-ever win against UF. The teams played twice before in the regular season.
Bowser, a Northwestern transfer who missed five games due to injuries, had 35 carries for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He had 15 carries for 70 yards in the fourth quarter.
“Our guys were able to make big plays,” said Malzahn. “In the fourth quarter, we imposed our will and ran downhill.”
For the Gators, it was a case of too many mistakes, including eight penalties for 85 yards.
“I thought our guys played hard,” said interim coach Greg Knox. “We just didn’t overcome the mistakes we made. You can’t make the mistakes we made and win the ballgame.”
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