FOOTBALL

Unlike last season, Gators are all in for Gasparilla Bowl vs. UCF

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports

Heading into last year’s bowl game, Florida wasn’t playing to win

With several starters opting out of the Cotton Bowl, including future first-round picks Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, the Gators were playing to develop in their 55-20 loss to Oklahoma. 

In fact, prior to facing the Sooners, former coach Dan Mullen told his staff the matchup would serve as the spring game UF didn’t get to have in 2020.

“Last year was totally different,” Florida interim coach Greg Knox said. “There was an opportunity to develop guys and have them play in a bowl game. But this year, it’s not that for us.”

Unlike last year, the current staff has no future to develop for. Today’s Gasparilla Bowl matchup against UCF will be the final game for Knox and these coaches with the UF players, so they’re going all out. 

“It's a one-shot game here. So we’re going for the win,” Knox said. “We’re going to put the best guys out there and we’re going to play to win.”

How to watch:Florida Gators vs. UCF Knights in Gasparilla Bowl on TV, live stream

Abolverdi's Analysis:Can Emory Jones keep Gators undefeated vs. in-state teams?

Bragging rights:UF players 'pumped up' for Gasparilla Bowl matchup with Central Florida

UF Notebook:Players give first impressions of new head football coach Billy Napier

Florida interim head coach Greg Knox prepares to lead the Gators onto the field on Nov. 27 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. Knox and the Gators hope to end the season on a high note when Florida takes on the UCF Knights on Thursday night in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl.

The UF players, it appears, are all in as well. Offensive starters Emory Jones and Jacob Copeland have already decided to transfer from the program, but both are playing vs. UCF. 

Emory Jones and Jacob Copeland will transfer after game

Gators star cornerback Kaiir Elam also decided against opting out, bucking a recent trend from projected first-round picks who have skipped their bowl game to begin preparing for the NFL draft. 

“This football team hasn’t really played an elite game yet, and I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us to do that,” Elam said. “It'd be great, especially for Coach Knox, you know what I'm saying? He's never lost as a head coach. And I feel like for the team, it's good morale for the last time we’ll be together. 

“It’s not all about Coach Knox, but it definitely is another motivating factor for us. For him to step in and to be that great role model for us, and allow us to go out there and just lock in and focus and play the game we love, I feel like we have the utmost respect for him. Because it’s been a hard time for not only us but the coaches as well. So, it’d be a pretty big blessing for us to go out and win." 

Jones will get the start at quarterback after being benched in his last outing for the second time this season. He threw a career-worst three interceptions against Florida State, but will get a chance to redeem himself today with backup Anthony Richardson out following minor knee surgery. 

Anthony Richardson will not play in game

“At the end of the day, Emory’s still a Gator. He is going to play his last game and he is going to lay it all on the line,” UF running back Dameon Pierce said of Jones. “I’ve never seen him give up. He’s going to fight. (This season) probably didn’t go the way he wanted it to go, probably not the way he envisioned, but he’s definitely a hard worker and he’s never going to quit or give up on anybody. That’s why you shouldn’t have no worries about him giving it his all to this team, because that’s just him.”

Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) hands off to running back Dameon Pierce (27) in the first quarter of their game against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Oct. 9 in Gainesville.

Jones led Florida this season with 2,563 passing yards and 696 rushing yards, but posted a 19-13 touchdown-interception ratio. UCF coach Gus Malzahn said his defense must account for Jones’ dual-threat ability. 

“He throws the ball pretty well too. I think he’s their leading rusher,” Malzahn said of Jones. “You’ve got to stop the run. That's a big challenge when a guy is such a good runner. You talk about trying to get after it and rushing the passer. It makes you slow down a little bit. We’ve got a lot of respect for him as we do their whole offense. They’ve got a real offense. It’s one of the best offenses in all of college football. Really it starts with him.”

Knights led by QB Mikey Keene

The Knights are led on offense by true freshman quarterback Mikey Keene, who replaced starter Dillon Gabriel after he suffered a broken collarbone on the final play of the 42-35 loss at Louisville on Sept. 17. Keene has started nine games this season with 1,586 passing yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.

"He’s been able to manage games, he’s really good,” Knox said of Keene. “He’s good out of the pocket, he can move his feet, he can run the ball. The running back [Johnny Richardson] is very explosive, very quick. We’ve got to contain him … but their quarterback, he runs the show. He’s very efficient in what he does.”

The Louisville game was the first of two one-score losses in Malzahn’s first year. Central Florida was defeated the following week at Navy, 34-31, and also suffered blowout losses at Cincinnati (56-21) and SMU (55-28). 

The Knights finished their season undefeated at home with a 17-13 win over South Florida, the only common opponent UCF has with the Gators. Florida won at USF, 42-20, on Sept. 11.

“They are a very impressive team. I’ve known Gus a while,” Knox said. “The stuff he runs, he gives you a lot of eye candy to keep you away from the main thing they’re doing. So, Gus is a great coach. I’ve watched his career over the years and he's done a great job. … They’re well-coached, well-disciplined, and they do a great job as far as what he’s doing offensively and defensively. 

“Matter of fact, his defensive coordinator, Travis [Williams], played for me when I coached at Auburn. He is very active. He will blitz, he's gonna bring pressure, and they seem to be playing really fast. He’s got them playing hard. So, I know these guys very well. I think they do a great job and I'm looking forward to having our guys get out there and play against them.”

A win over Central Florida will not only give the Gators in-state bragging rights, but the program would avoid finishing with a losing record for the first time since 2017.

“It would mean a great deal for this team to finish strong,” Knox said. “We always talk about finishing strong. We go back to the Florida State game. That was a big deal for us to finish our schedule for the year against them strong in a rivalry game. I thought they did that well. Now you get one extra game with the bowl game by beating Florida State. So, it’s still about finishing strong and capping this whole thing off.”

How to watch Gasparilla Bowl

Who: Florida (6-6) vs. UCF (8-4)

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850