5 takeaways from an historic Knight: UCF beats the Florida Gators, wins Gasparilla Bowl

Chris Boyle
Florida Today

TAMPA — Little brother no more, UCF rose to the occasion and outlasted Florida in Thursday night's sold-out Gasparilla Bowl.

Ryan O'Keefe, the game's MVP with 251 all-purpose yards, tormented the Gators with his speed, and Isaiah Bowser returned from injury to set the tempo with 35 carries, 155 yards and two touchdowns as the Knights (9-4) prevailed 29-17 in front of an announced crowd of 63,669 fans at Raymond James Stadium.

Daniel Obarski kicked three field goals, and UCF's defense limited Florida (6-7) to 376 total yards and a 2-of-12 conversion rate on third down.

It's a landmark achievement for the Knights, shaking up the order of the state's supposed "Big Three" — even with the Gators going into freefall down the stretch, finishing 2-6 in SEC play and firing head coach Dan Mullen. Greg Knox handled coaching duties on the night with Billy Napier set to take over after signing a seven-year contract.

Knights coach Gus Malzahn expects this win will have lasting effects, merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

"We've been talking about building our foundation this year. The best is yet to come, I really believe," Malzahn said. "It's a very, very big win in a lot of ways."

It's one he joked was worth the two Gatorade baths he received. It's one that could turn the heads of premier recruits toward the burgeoning Big 12 invaders. It's one that fans, alumni and athletes alike will remember forever.

Here are five takeaways from a turning of the tide in Tampa Bay.

Reverse! Reverse!

Dec 23, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA;  UCF Knights wide receiver Ryan O'Keefe (4) runs with the ball in the first half against the Florida Gators at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

UCF labored offensively for most of the first three quarters, but hurt the Gators twice with well-timed trickery — reverse runs dialed up for O'Keefe.

"We felt like on the reverses they would go after the quarterback or the back and we thought we'd have some explosive plays," Malzahn said. "(O'Keefe)'s got real speed now. He outran those guys."

The 5-foot-10, 175-pound receiver burned Florida on a slot blitz near the midway point of the second quarter. He flew right past oncoming linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper and cruised around the right end for a 34-yard gain. That led to a 34-yard field goal by Daniel Obarski, giving the Knights a 9-7 lead.

Recap:UCF defeats Gators in back-and-forth Gasparilla Bowl

Thrown out:Ty'Ron Hopper gets ejected for apparent punch after a breakout game for Florida Gators

Big play video:UCF's Ryan O'Keefe runs into Gasparilla Bowl record books with 74-yard gain

New Gators coach:Florida hires Billy Napier of University of Louisiana as its next football coach

O'Keefe's second run landed him right into the Gasparilla Bowl record books.

He took the handoff, got the edge, tiptoed the sidelines and raced 74 yards to the Gators' 4-yard line. It was both the longest run in game history, and the longest play from scrimmage for UCF this year.

Bowser punched in his second touchdown of the night on the next snap, restoring the Knights' advantage.

Deuces! A tribute to Otis

Dec 23, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; UCF Knights running back Isiah Bowser (5) scores a touchdown against the Florida Gators in the first half of the Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Florida and UCF traded scores after Bowser's touchdown run — Malik Davis' 19-yard run for the Gators countered by Obarski's 21-yard field goal, putting the Knights up 19-17.

Emory Jones, in what was expected to be his final start for UF, missed a big chance to give his team the lead again — overshooting Justin Shorter on 3rd-and-19 for a potential 81-yard backbreaker of a touchdown.

Immediately after the Gators punted, UCF converted its own deep shot.

Mikey Keene floated a perfect 54-yard touchdown pass to O'Keefe, who chucked up a peace sign as he breezed into the end zone. The deuces paid homage to former Knights running back Otis Anderson Jr., killed Nov. 29 in a domestic shooting in Jacksonville.

More:Jacksonville football star is killed in shooting over dog bite; father arrested

"Otis was like a big brother to me," O'Keefe said. "When he passed away, it hit me hard.

"I had came into the locker room, seen his jersey, touched it and said, 'Yeah, I'm going to play for you.'"

Out of the tunnel for pre-game introductions, running back Trillion Coles carried Anderson's No. 2 jersey the length of the field. Malzahn said he met Anderson once, but knows he had a profound impact on the Knights' upperclassmen.

"You could tell he was a special young man," Malzahn said. "Our whole team wanted to win for him."

Bowser's back... maybe for 2022, too?

UCF seriously missed Bowser in the five games he missed due to injury. He punishes opposing tacklers, has enough wiggle to make people miss in tight space and provides an ideal complement for home-run hitter Johnny Richardson.

Bowser handled the most carries in Gasparilla Bowl history and seemed to get stronger as the night wore on. He plowed forward to finish off two crucial drives with touchdowns and picked up several first downs on a 5-minute clock-consuming drive late in the fourth.

"I felt like I was back healthy," Bowser said. "My coaches and teammates helped me get through adversity. It felt great to be back out there."

Malzahn doubted that the 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior performed at 100%. His workload inspired teammates, including those blocking for him.

"He's a monster," left tackle Marcus Tatum said. "He's a team guy, willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. He put it on the line tonight, and it paid off."

Bowser rushed for nine touchdowns in his first year with the program after transferring from Northwestern, matching a school single-game record with four scores against Bethune-Cookman in September. He reflected on the fun he's had and how much he's enjoyed the experience, while also leaving the door open for a return.

"We'll see," he said.

Historic moment for Florida's "other" schools

Several generations have passed since the last time a Sunshine State school other than Miami or Florida State managed to topple the Gators.

That honor previously belonged to — believe it, or not — Stetson during its first football era before. The Hatters defeated Florida, 16-14, on Sept. 24, 1938, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

It probably seems like a lifetime ago at this point, but the Gators opened 2021 with back-to-back victories against Florida Atlantic and South Florida — the latter coming on this very same Raymond James Stadium field.

UCF and Florida played just twice all-time prior to Thursday, the last time occurring in 2006 — a comfortable 42-0 win for the Gators in the Swamp. The two schools agreed in July to a three-game series; Florida will play host in 2024 and '33, while UCF welcomes the Gators to the Bounce House for the first time in 2030.

By then, it's likely the Knights' move into the Big 12 will be finalized, giving the state four Power Five programs.

And until then, UCF can — and most certainly will — celebrate bragging rights.

"We wanted to prove we were the best team in Florida," linebacker Tatum Bethune said. "That's what we did."

But... were the Gators motivated?

"They weren't motivated" has become the classic built-in excuse for big programs — particularly those of the SEC — upon laying an egg in bowl games without national championship implications.

Malzahn experienced the losing end of the spectrum on New Year's Day of 2018 as his Auburn Tigers lost 34-27 to UCF in the Peach Bowl, thus sparking the Knights' title-claiming campaign.

He's not buying that argument as it pertains to Florida.

"They're really talented. They had most of their guys play," Malzahn said.

Earlier in the week, defensive back Kaiir Elam — viewed as a potential high NFL draft pick — told reporters, "My plans are beat UCF and make a lot of plays." Running back Dameon Pierce, who already accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl for draft evaluation, handled 13 carries for 57 yards and a touchdown.

Several of the Gators who reportedly planned to enter the NCAA's transfer portal, including Jones, linebacker Mohamoud Diabate and wide receiver Jacob Copeland, suited up and participated.

And there was plenty of emotion throughout the night, including a skirmish between players during handshakes.

If the Gators didn't want to be there in the first place, their actions before, during or after they stepped between the lines did not reflect that notion.