UCF delivers a fitting end to the Gators in Gasparilla Bowl

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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TAMPA — If you’re looking for the perfect gift for that Florida fan on your Christmas list, here’s a suggestion. Go to that person’s house and unplug the Wi-Fi.

That gift not only will come in under budget, it will keep your Gator fan off the internet. That’s the last place they’ll want to venture after Thursday night.

Social media will be dripping in gold-and-black gloating after UCF turned the Gasparilla Bowl into the We Beat the Gators Bowl. It will be the digital continuation of a post-game scene a lot of Florida fans never thought they’d see.

As Knights fans danced in the stands and chanted “UCF! UCF! UCF!" players joyfully raised a bowl trophy. It was engraved “Gasparilla Bowl,” but it will symbolize much more to the Knights.

Remember all those billboards they put up around the state proclaiming the future of college football is in Orlando? UCF fans can now say the future is now.

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“That’s not just talk,” Gus Malzahn said. “That’s really going to happen.”

To which Florida fans will go, “meh.”

They will say the game — heck, the entire season — deserves a Dan Mullen asterisk. The Gators were coached by a skeleton staff of interim coaches. Three defensive starters had opted out of the event at Raymond James Stadium.

Emory Jones, passing game out of sync

Florida had one healthy quarterback, and it was Emory Jones. He didn’t go on one of his interception binges, but the passing game never looked so out of sync.

All that was true. The Gators were in a state of confused flux. Being the flagship institute of higher learning and football in our state, they were in a nothing-to-win/everything-to-lose position against a school once known as Florida Technological University.

Excuses, excuses.

UCF has had injuries and woes this season, though it’s safe to say Malzahn was in a better coaching position Thursday night than Greg Knox. And to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army and coaches and QB you might wish to have at a later time.”

The army Florida had Thursday night performed too much like the one that went 6-6 in the regular season. It was far too sloppy, inconsistent and undisciplined to beat even the third-place team in the American Athletic Conference.

“All of it came into play,” Knox said. “You can’t win ball games when you make that amount of mistakes.”

The mistakes crystallized in a third-quarter sequence. Florida took a 17-16 lead and got to kick off from the 50 thanks to a personal foul penalty. Chris Howard drilled an on-sides kickoff at a UCF player and the ball bounced back toward a horde of Gators.

Penalties add up for Gators

Three players had a shot at recovering the ball, but none did. On UCF’s first play, Gervon Dexter was called for a personal foul. Two plays later, Brenton Cox Jr. was flagged for roughing the passer. Boosted by 30 free yards of penalties, the Knights got a go-ahead field goal and never trailed.

Such dysfunction was nothing new. Neither was the post-game explanation.

“You go back and look at things — why does this continue to happen,” Knox said, “and try to tweak it and make it work to eliminate those kinds of mistakes.”

It didn’t matter if it was Knox or Mullen or Todd Grantham or Christian Robinson doing the tweaking this season. It never took. It was the Gators’ fourth straight game with at least 80 yards of penalties.

The end was frustratingly fitting. A mini-brawl broke out as the teams were shaking hands and milling around. It’s unclear how it started or who was to blame, but it was not the kind of the thing that usually happens in a bowl game.

Of course, it wasn’t just another bowl game as far as UCF was concerned.

“We’re just getting started,” Malzahn said. “The best is yet to come.”

To which Florida fans would say, “We’re just getting things ended. The best is yet to come.”

Billy Napier on the sidelines

They’d look to the guy on the sideline Thursday night wearing a light-blue suit. Billy Napier observed the action and had to come away unimpressed. He offered a brief comment during a TV interview.

“We’ve got an incredible challenge in front of us,” Napier said. “But we’re excited.”

By the time these teams meet again in 2024, we’ll have a much better idea where the future of college football really is in Florida. One certainty is the present of college football isn’t in Gainesville.

Other than Miami and FSU, the last in-state school to beat Florida was Stetson — in 1938.

Ugh.

“I think the guys that are here will have a better year next year,” Malik Davis said, “and change things around.”

As for this season, the best thing UF fans can say about is it’s over. But after Thursday night, UCF fans may never let them hear the end of it.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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