The Knights added to their Sunshine State dominance on Thursday, defeating Florida 29-17 in the 2021 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl at a full-capacity Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. It marked UCF’s 50th win in the last five seasons. That’s 11 more than any other team in the state of Florida during that span, including the Gators.
It’s UCF’s third bowl victory since 2017, which is also the most of any team in the state. And this is all before the Knights begin play in the Big 12 Conference, which could begin as early as the 2023 season.
In head coach Gus Malzahn‘s first season at UCF, he overcame many injuries to key players, and one of his own — a broken bone in his leg suffered late in the regular season — while leading his squad to nine wins with a true freshman at quarterback.
“I’m very proud of our team. We’re building the foundation. We’re just getting started. The best is yet to come. I am so proud of our guys,” Malzahn says. “The character that they have showed through tough times this year is amazing. These seniors helped us build this foundation and I am very proud of their effort.”
Keene went 7-3 as a starter for the Knights, finishing an efficient 14-of-22 for 144 yards and 54-yard touchdown pass to the game’s Most Valuable Player, Ryan O’Keefe.
O’Keefe finished with seven receptions for 85 yards and the one score, while also rushing for 110 yards on four carries and totaled a Gasparilla Bowl record 251 all-purpose yards with a pair of kick returns for 56 yards.
He, running back Isaiah Bowser, and a stout defense carried the Knights to victory.
Bowser, who missed plenty of time this season due to injuries, returned in fine form, carrying the ball a career-high and Gasparilla Bowl record 35 times for 155 yards and two touchdowns. The Knight leaned on the senior back in the second half, giving him the ball 23 times, which led to 116 yards as UCF put the game away.
“I was back healthy. It felt great to play with my teammates and get the win. I was able to lean on my teammates. They were very encouraging for me to get back,” Bowser says.
UCF outscored the Gators 20-7 in the second half and didn’t allow Florida to score after a third-quarter touchdown that gave the Blue and Orange a 17-16 lead. The Knights held the Gators scoreless for almost 23 minutes to end the game.
The Knights had a pair of sacks from Cam Goode and Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste and a trio of pass breakups from Davonte Brown to help keep Florida at bay in the second half.
Special teams did its part too, led by Daniel Obarski’s three made field goals. The kicker hit from 34 yards, 21 yards, and 33 yards to tie the UCF record for most field goals made in a game.
The Knights finished the season 9-4, recording nine or more wins for the fourth time in the last five seasons, and have a whole lot of momentum heading into the offseason.