Florida-UCF takeaways: Emory Jones' inaccuracy, penalties hold Gators back

Zach Abolverdi
The Gainesville Sun
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Florida’s 2021 football season ended in fitting fashion Thursday with a 29-17 loss to UCF in the Gasparilla Bowl. 

The Gators led 10-9 at the half and regained the lead in the third quarter, but the Knights (9-4) scored 13 unanswered points en route to their first win over UF in program history. 

“You can’t make the mistakes we made and expect to win a ball game. And we didn’t,” Florida interim coach Greg Knox said. “We made big mistakes and we weren’t able to overcome those.”

It marked Central Florida’s fourth nine-win season in five years, while the Gators finished with a losing record (6-7) for the first time since 2017.

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Florida also had a scare when wide receiver Justin Shorter took a big hit late in the fourth, but Shorter was conscious and communicating with the medical trainers as they carted him off the field. 

Here are three takeaways from the game:

Florida Gators running back Malik Davis (20) and quarterback Emory Jones (5) walk of the field after losing to the UCF Knights 29-17 on Thursday night in the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

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Emory Jones’ inaccuracy holds offense back

In what will likely be his last game as a Gator, quarterback Emory Jones had his worst performance as a starter from an accuracy standpoint. 

Jones had completed over 60 percent of his pass attempts in every game this year except one (56 percent at South Carolina). Against the Knights, however, he had a season-low 38.9% completion rate on 14 of 36 pass attempts (a career-high). 

Jones overthrew Shorter and Trent Whittemore on two potential touchdown passes, though his receivers also dropped a few balls. He had 171 yards through the air and rushed for 62 on 10 carries. 

“I don’t think they caused me any problems,” Jones said of the Knights. “I missed a couple throws. I made a couple mistakes. I was seeing everything they were doing. I don’t think they did anything out of the ordinary.”

Jones told multiple media outlets last week he plans to enter the transfer portal, but was noncommittal Thursday on his future plans. Jones said if he does enter the portal, there’s still a chance he could return to UF. 

“Yeah, of course,” Jones said. “I’ll go talk to my mom, my family, the people that are important to me and I’ll make a decision. ... I’m not really thinking about my future right now. I’m still thinking about what happened on the field and just feeling bad for the seniors that we didn’t send them out the right way.” 

Penalties problematic for Gators 

Penalties, as they have all season, plagued Florida once again in the Gasparilla Bowl. 

The Gators were flagged eight times for 85 yards, marking the fourth straight game and seventh this season where they had at least 80 yards in penalties. 

“It’s been a lot of different things,” Knox said when asked about the root of the issue. “Personal foul penalties, jumping offsides penalties, holding penalties. Tonight, all of it. All of it came into play again. You can’t win big ball games when you make those amount of mistakes.”

The Gators had three false starts, a holding and offensive pass interference on receiver Jacob Copeland. Unsportsmanlike conduct was called on defensive tackle Gervon Dexter and linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper, who was ejected for throwing a punch, while outside linebacker Brenton Cox Jr. received a roughing the passer penalty. 

“Some of the personal fouls, that’s emotional. A lot of emotion plays a part in the game. But the offsides penalties and things like that, that’s just being locked in and detailed and listening to the cadence,” Knox said. 

“I think one drive we gave them 30 yards of penalties. After a short punt, that basically put them right there in scoring position. You can’t make those mistakes and expect to win games. We just made too many again.”

UCF wins rushing battle behind Isaiah Bowser

After a promising start on the ground, Florida ended up losing the rushing battle (288-205) after UCF’s Isaiah Bowser and Ryan O’Keefe ran wild in the second half. 

Bowser rushed for 155 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 35 carries, while wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe also had 110 yards on just four carries. 

Bowser and O’Keefe became the eighth and ninth players to rush for 99 yards or more against UF this season, joining Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez (99), LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price (287), Georgia’s Zamir White (105), South Carolina’s Kevin Harris (130) and Zaquandre White (113), Missouri’s Tyler Badie (148) and FSU’s Travis Jordan (135).

Bowser and O’Keefe are also the second duo to rush for 100-plus yards apiece in the same game (Harris and White). O’Keefe also made seven receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown.

“Our goal was to get him at least 15 touches today and you saw what he did with it when he got the ball,” UCF coach Gus Malzahn said of O’Keefe. “He is one of the best playmakers in the game.”

In his final outing in orange and blue, senior running back Dameon Pierce etched his name in the school record books and received double-digit carries for the second consecutive game. 

This time, he hit that mark in the first half with 10 carries for 52 yards. The majority of those came in the first quarter, with Pierce receiving six carries on one possession and capping it off with a three-yard score.

That was his 13th touchdown of the year, which tied him for fifth in UF history for most rushing TDs in a season. Pierce finished with a season-high 13 carries for 57 yards, while fellow senior Malik Davis led the Gators with 86 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. 

“Malik Davis, he’s a tremendous young man,” Knox said. “He’s made some big plays this year, he’s done a lot of great things for us. He played his heart out. Most of these guys played their hearts out. We just made too many mistakes as a team to win that ball game.”

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