As the final seconds marked UCF’s 29-17 victory over Florida in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl on Thursday night, UCF’s Twitter account was quick to make a statement: “Sunshine STATEment” .
Indeed, UCF did not only make history with its first victory against Florida. It was also UCF’s first victory over a Power 5 program in the state. At 9-4, UCF ends this season with the best record in Florida, much like it did in 2017 and 2018.
For Florida, it was another embarrassing loss to end a season filled with them. The Gators opened the season 14th overall. In the end, coach Dan Mullen was fired and they finished 6-7, their first losing season since 2017. It was also the program’s first loss to an unnamed state school Florida State or Miami since. Stetson in 1938. And the Knights won the game despite a long list of injuries to some of their best players, including quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who is no longer with the team after being transferred to UCLA.
First-year coach Gus Malzahn was also on the injured list, having broken his leg last month when he was inadvertently sidelined against Tulane.
“I’m so proud of our guys. The character they’ve shown through the tough times this year is amazing. A lot of teams would have had a blast over what we had.”
To be clear, the team Florida took to Thursday night’s bowl game didn’t matter to anyone at UCF. It was a game UCF had wanted to play since 2018, when the two teams qualified for all six New Years games but were sent to different games (UCF at the Fiesta Bowl to play LSU; Florida at the Chick- fil-A Peach Bowl to play Michigan). UCF felt aggrieved, and this spawned some heated footage between fan bases in the years that followed.
But now? The UCF gets those bragging rights and will never let Florida forget what happened on a chilly night in Tampa.
Receiver Ryan O’Keefe had 251 versatile yards en route to the game’s MVP, and Malzahn said the goal was to get him “at least 15 touches.” You saw what he did with it when he received the ball. He’s one of the best playmakers in the game. “
O’Keefe later said he was inspired to play in honor of former UCF running back Otis Anderson Jr., who was shot and killed during a marital argument with his father last month.
“It hit me hard when he passed away,” O’Keefe said. “I saw his jersey tonight and said I was going to play for him.”
The UCF exhausted Florida in the trenches in the second half. The Knights finished with 288 rushing yards, making sure they didn’t get turned down.
Meanwhile, Florida quarterback Emory Jones, who previously said he plans to enter the transfer portal, struggled to make accurate throws to open receivers all night, finishing 14 on 36 for 171 yards. The same mistakes that plagued Florida all year – quarterback inconsistency, too many penalties, and unruly play – happened again in the last game under interim coach Greg Knox.
“I thought our kids were playing hard, but we just couldn’t get over the mistakes we made,” Knox said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes as a team – personal fouls, penalties withheld, false starts – and we just can’t win big games when you make so many mistakes.”
Certainly UCF is no longer the program that lost the last meeting between the Schools 42-0 in 2006. The Knights have won a total of 50 games in the past five years, their most in five seasons in the history of the program.
And they’re heading to the Big 12, eager to join the ranks of the “Big Three” in Florida and finally make it known once and for all as the “Big Four”.
“This is just the start,” Malzahn said on the post-match TV show. “I really believe we have big dreams, we have big goals. We can win everything here. Tonight was just the first step. The recruiting is going to be going very well now.”