TAMPA — Since its inception in 2008, the Gasparilla Bowl has been known by four different names and UCF has the distinction of having played in the game under all four names.
On Monday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium, the Knights defeated Marshall 48-25 to have the distinction of winning 10 games for a third straight season.
UCF joins Alabama, Boise State, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma as the only teams to achieve double-digit victories each of the past three years.
The win, before an announced Gasparilla Bowl-record crowd of 33,539, improved UCF’s three-year record to 35-4. That win total puts the program in even slightly more exclusive company as Boise State and Notre Dame do not qualify for the 35-plus club.
“Over the past three seasons there are only six teams that have won 35-plus ball games and when you look at those teams, we are in pretty elite company,” said coach Josh Heupel, whose team finished 10-3. “I hope we never get to the point as a program and a fan base that our success isn’t really appreciated.”
Heupel noted his team was a play or two away in altering the outcome in the three losses. To that extent, freshman quarterback and bowl MVP Dillon Gabriel was pleased with the season overall. Alas, the bar has been set high at UCF.
“We’re happy with 10-3, but at the same time we know what we could have done,” he said, after throwing for 260 yards and two touchdowns and running for a score during a turnover-free outing.
UCF piled up 587 yards, though it was the defense that set the tone early and often as the Knights stormed out to a 21-0 lead eight minutes into a rainy first quarter.
On the third play of the game, UCF safety Richie Grant returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Marshall quarterback Isaiah Green’s pass intended for Obi Obialo was high and deflected off the receiver’s hands and conveniently into those of Grant, who raced down the right sideline for a 7-0 lead 56 seconds in.
The Knights increased their lead to 14-0 on a 26-yard run by Greg McRae with 9:12 left in the opening quarter. A little more than two minutes later, freshman defensive end Tre’mon Morris-Brash returned an errant lateral 55 yards for a score to make it 21-0 with still seven minutes remaining.
“The turnovers were critical and ended up putting a little space between us and them on the scoreboard,” said Heupel. “I thought in the first half we were absolutely suffocating on the defensive side of the football. We did a really good job controlling the line of scrimmage and playing with tough coverage on the back end.”
The Thundering Herd, which turned the ball over four on of their first five possessions and five times for the game, got a defensive touchdown of their own in the second quarter. Freshman safety Micah Abraham, a Tampa native who attended East Lake High, picked a Darriel Mack Jr. pass intended for Otis Anderson and returned it 75 yards for Marshall’s first points.
Abraham’s father and oldest brother know what it is like to pick off a pass in Raymond James Stadium. Donnie Abraham played the first six seasons (1996-2001) of his nine-year NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Devin Abraham played with USF from 2014-17. Like Micah, they were defensive backs.
“It felt great knowing that my dad played in this stadium, my brother played in this stadium,” he said. “It was a great moment for me. Before the game I was watching my dad’s highlights and he had played just like that. It was great.”
In the second quarter Marshall did not have any yards on 12 plays, but outscored the Knights 7-3 thanks to the pick-six. UCF had 168 of their 254 first-half yards in the quarter and took a 24-7 lead into the half on Dylan Barnas’ 36-yard field goal as time expired. The field goal capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive.
A third-quarter track meet included the teams combining for three touchdowns in 31 seconds. After Gabriel scored on a three-yard TD run with 7:10 remaining, Green connected with Willie Johnson for a 70-yard score.
Gabriel responded by connecting with Marlon Williams for 75 yards to make the score 45-22 with 6:39 remaining in the quarter. Williams, who took a screen pass and did the rest, finished with game highs of seven receptions and 132 yards, the latter a career high.
The quarterback was operating without top receiver Gabriel Davis and do-it-all running back Adrian Killins Jr., both having decided to sit out the game and prepare for the NFL draft.
The offense sputtered at times, but when it got rolling it was hard to stop. Alas, Gabriel was often hard to stop during a season in which he threw 29 touchdown passes.
“Overall, I think there are so many things to work on,” he said, when asked about a freshman campaign in which he threw only seven interceptions. “I’m just glad I was able to contribute to this team and be the best teammate I could and do what I could from the quarterback position.”
Safety Antwan Collier had two fumble recoveries and an interception for the Knights and linebacker Nate Evans, playing his last game, recorded a game-high 12 tackles.