UCF vs. Marshall top

UCF redshirt senior offensive lineman Jake Brown (77) and senior linebacker Nate Evans (44) hoist the Gasparilla Bowl trophy after defeating the Marshall University Thundering Herd 48-25 at Raymond James Stadium on Dec. 23.

It was an unusually long and rainy afternoon featuring fans in ponchos and slippery terrain as the UCF Knights earned its third straight 10-win season and all-time fifth bowl win, dominating the Marshall Thundering Herd 48-25 in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, Florida on Monday. 

"It was really important for us to finish the season the right way," said UCF head coach Josh Heupel. "We talked a lot about leaving a legacy — our seniors, they're leaving us. I'm really proud of what they did today — competed extremely hard, handled the weather, the adversity early in the football game."

The first drive of the game did not lack excitement. With Marshall starting at its own 20-yard line, the UCF defense put up a strong front to score the first points of the game. 

After lockdown coverage in the backfield from UCF junior defensive back Tay Gowan, UCF redshirt junior defensive back Richie Grant intercepted a deflected pass and ran it back to the house for a 39-yard touchdown to give the Knights a quick 7-0 lead.

The Knights' defense was not done there. 

On the very next drive, Grant turned a potential big-yard gain by Marshall senior tight end Armani Levias into a forced fumble, causing Marshall’s second turnover in just two possessions. 

When talking about the impact play of Grant's defense, Heupel had one word to describe it — huge. 

"It changed the way the game was played early in the football game. Horrendous weather early. I thought in all three phases our kids handled it pretty well," Heupel said. "The turnovers from the defense were critical — it puts a bunch of space between them and the scoreboard. I thought in the first half they were absolutely suffocating on the defensive side of the football — did a great job of controlling the ling of scrimmage and playing really tight coverage on the back end."  

UCF’s offense found life in its second drive of the afternoon thanks to the running game. 

After a couple of nice gains by UCF junior running back Otis Anderson, UCF junior running back Greg McCrae capped off the drive with a 26-yard touchdown run up the middle to give the Knights a 14-0 lead with 9:12 left in the first quarter.  

And when it rains, it pours. 

The Knights got off to their best defensive start all year, forcing three turnovers in the first quarter.

A deflected lateral pass by defensive lineman Tre’Mon Morris-Brash was picked up and returned 45-yards to put UCF up 21-0 — the first career fumble recovery and touchdown for the freshman out of Washington, D.C.

Just when it looked like Marshall’s offense found its footing, UCF redshirt junior defensive back Aaron Robinson forced a red zone fumble to deliver the Knights its fourth turnover and second fumble recovery in 16 minutes. 

"Those guys just came out hungry," said senior linebacker Nate Evans. "I talked to the team before we even went out on the field and I said 'It's my last game, I want you guys to just go out there, turn up for me and turn up with me.' The whole team just balled and played a heck of a game." 

The Thundering Herd came back with some defensive playmaking of their own. 

With UCF redshirt sophomore quarterback Darriel Mack Jr. at the helm of the offense for the Black and Gold, Marshall freshman safety Micah Abraham intercepted the pass and ran it 75 yards for a touchdown, giving them some life early in the second quarter.

Abraham scored a touchdown in the same stadium his father and older brother played in as NFL players. 

After four consecutive empty drives for UCF, redshirt sophomore Bentavious Thompson fortified the Knights’ rushing attack with a 45-yard rush up the left side to set up UCF redshirt senior kicker Dylan Barnas for a 36-yard field goal to put UCF up 24-7 at the end of the half. 

As the sun came out on Raymond James Stadium in the second half, it was UCF’s offense that began to shine.  

After pushing the ball upfield, it seemed as if UCF’s offense would be stopped short. On 4th and 7, Heupel opted to go for it. The gamble paid off as Anderson scored a 35-yard touchdown off a screen pass from UCF freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel.

Marshall swiftly answered back with some offense of its own. 

Thundering Herd quarterback Isaiah Green led a savvy offensive drive that ended in a touchdown off a five-yard scramble from Green, cutting UCF’s lead to 31-14 with 9:33 to go in the third quarter. 

The Knights continued to improve in the passing game in the second half. After a 46-yard strike from Gabriel to UCF redshirt junior wide receiver Tre Nixon, a roughing the passer penalty put UCF in the red zone. 

Gabriel would then score his fourth rushing touchdown of the season, a three-yard rush into the end zone off a play fake.

He finished the game going 14-24 with 260 yards passing and two touchdowns and was crowned MVP of the game. 

"I think there's so much to learn from over the course of this season," Gabriel said. "From getting here in January and just learning so much and then obviously going through my first full season. I think overall there's so much things to work on, individually and as a team. We're happy with the 10-3 but at the same time we know what was at stake and what could've been."   

As one team scored, the other fired right back. 

A 70-yard touchdown strike from Green produced the longest offensive drive of the day for the Thundering Herd. A two-point conversion would cut the UCF lead down to 16 with 6:51 left in the third. 

It took just one play for UCF to answer back as Gabriel found UCF junior wide receiver Marlon Williams off a screen pass for a 75-yard touchdown, putting the score at 45-22 late in the third quarter. 

Williams led the way for the Knights with 132 receiving yards and one touchdown.  

"Huge game. [Williams] is a guy that has invested more. Been more purposeful in the way he’s competed in the course of practice, more purposeful in the way he prepares and because of that he's in the right place at the right time now," Heupel said. "There's a lot of trust between [Gabriel] and him and it's a great lesson for young guys inside our program to stay the course."

Overall, the third quarter had 39 total points and six unsportsmanlike penalties combined — and lasted a whole hour.

UCF junior defensive back Antwon Collier continued a massive performance in the fourth quarter with an interception of his own. Collier capped off his fourth interception of the year with two fumble recoveries to go along with it.  

Evans had nothing but high praise for the rising DB out of Miami. 

"[Collier] is going to be a really good football player. None of us are perfect, we are always going to continue to get better as we play the game," Evans said. "He's a real young guy so he has a lot of game left. He's going to keep doing that for the UCF Knights for a long time." 

The Knights set a Gasparilla Bowl record with 48 total points while Marshall suffered its first bowl loss under head coach Doc Holliday and falls to 3-1 in the Gasparilla Bowl. 

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