Florida vs. UCF scores, takeaways: Gators fall apart in second half of 2021 Gasparilla Bowl

By Adam Silverstein
December 23, 2021
Florida vs. UCF scores, takeaways: Gators fall apart in second half of 2021 Gasparilla Bowl

Image Credit: GatorsFB / Twitter

The 2021 college football season was already one to forget for the Florida Gators, yet it still ended in pathetic fashion as an embarrassing second-half effort led to a 29-17 defeat at the hands of the UCF Knights in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl. Not only did Florida lose to UCF, it did so in front of a packed house at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, in a game that the Knights will certainly hold over the Gators for the foreseeable future.

UCF deserves those bragging rights, however, as it took advantage of a Florida team that played the same way it did all season: inconsistent and undisciplined. The offense missed wide open receivers. The defense allowed numerous explosive plays. Special teams was anything but deserving of that moniker. The loss was truly a total-team effort.

It does not matter that the Gators barely used half of their bowl practices, saw numerous starters unable to play or were in the midst of a coaching change. At the end of the day, Florida suited up to play in the game and was unsuccessful.

The end result is the Gators’ first losing season since 2017 and second since 2013. It was also their first-ever loss to the Knights and first defeat at the hands of a Sunshine State team this season (3-1). Beyond those superficial notes, the ramifications of this loss for Florida are almost nonexistent. More on that in a moment.

Let’s take a look at what went down in the Gasparilla Bowl.

1. Best wishes: Redshirt junior wide receiver Justin Shorter was knocked out cold on Florida’s final offensive possession of the game. Shorter was extending for a dart pass when he was hit hard in the neck/shoulder/head area. He was knocked out immediately and fell directly on his face. Trainers were decisive bringing a cart out for Shorter, placing him on a board and driving him off the field. It was later determined that Shorter was conscious and speaking to trainers as he was being carted off. Update: Shorter is being released from the hospital on Friday.

2. Explosive plays went the wrong way … Though Florida’s offense was far from stellar, the defense is the reason it lost Thursday. The Gators allowed five explosive plays in the game, all of which went for at least 34 yards and led to 23 of UCF’s 29 points. There was a 38-yard rush in the second quarter that the Knights compounded with a fourth-and-5 conversion before scoring a touchdown. Later that quarter, a 34-yard reverse setup a 34-yard field goal as UCF took its first lead of the game at 9-7. In the third quarter, a 74-yard reverse setup a touchdown that again pushed the Knights ahead 16-10, and a 54-yard passing play extended their lead at 26-17, basically ending the game before the final 15 minutes.

This was a problem for Florida’s defense all season. It would appear stout for extended lengths of time and make one believe it was in control of the game only to falter in key moments. The Gators could have played lights-out offensively, but they still would have been encumbered by a defense that could not handle its business, which primarily is ensuring explosive plays do not happen. UF allowed 147 yards rushing and two touchdowns to UCF running back Isaiah Bowser as well as 195 total yards and a touchdown to WR Ryan O’Keefe. That’s 332 of UCF’s 436 total yards to just two players.

3. … still, the offense was pathetic … The defense deserves its blame, but this game was still winnable with a competent offense. Instead, redshirt junior quarterback Emory Jones — who valiantly played in the game despite previously deciding to enter the transfer portal — had his worst effort of the season that did not include multiple turnovers. Jones completed just 14 of 36 passes(!) for 171 yards, only finding success with 62 yards on the ground. He missed at least three wide-open touchdown passes by overthrowing his receivers and far too frequently tucked to run rather than remain patient in the pocket.

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Trent Whittemore, whose thrown his fair share of successful passes this season, also missed a simple touchdown throw to redshirt senior tight end Kemore Gamble, who slipped on the WR pass play but likely would have caught the score if it was thrown higher. Gamble himself dropped three passes, including two crucial third-down tosses that would have extended drives.

Senior running back Dameon Pierce was again Florida’s best player, but after eight rushes and a touchdown in the first quarter, he only touched the ball five more times over the remainder of the game, once again angering those who knows he’s capable of much more. Pierce finished with 57 yards, while senior RB Malik Davis complimented him with 86 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.

4. … the entire team was undisciplined … It should have been an omen when Florida committed a false start on its first play from scrimmage, but the Gators were once again completely undisciplined for most of the game. They committed eight penalties for 85 yards — all in the first three quarters — with multiple 15-yard penalties that were largely emotional plays. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper, arguably Florida’s defensive MVP over the final third of the season, even got ejected for throwing a punch after a touchdown. (Replay showed Hopper shoved a player from behind and did not punch him, but that’s still a penalty, and Hopper should not have put himself in that position to be flagged.)

5. … and special teams remained terrible: It would be nice to say that this unit’s poor play was an aberration Thursday, but unfortunately, it was more of the same of what happened all season. Redshirt senior kicker Chris Howard badly missed two of three field goal attempts — both of which interim coach Greg Knox, who is also the special teams coordinator, never should have called — that were the most notable miscues. However, Florida’s failures went far beyond poor field goals. The Gators’ return teams allowed massive gains by the Knights. UF also failed to recover an onside kick sitting on the ground as clear as day waiting for someone to scoop it up and on two other plays nearly fumbled dribbling kickoffs only to luckily recover them. The special teams play in 2021 was some of the worst in program history and so poor across the board that it was likely among the worst nationally if the entire unit could somehow be measured in totality.

6. Odds and ends: Florida lost its first game to UCF in program history (2-1) … the Gators fell to 24-23 all-time in bowl games with a 3-2 mark in their last five and 6-3 record in their last nine in the Sunshine State … UF fell to 3-1 against in-state opponents this season … Florida is now 25-6 when scoring first and 27-4 when leading at halftime since 2018, taking rare losses in both categories on Thursday … the Gators are now 27-8 against unranked opponents and 14-2 against nonconference opponents, also taking losses in both categories … Florida has scored in 423 consecutive games, an NCAA record

7. What it means: For UCF, everything. For Florida, a whole lot of nothing. The Gators entered this game down multiple starters with a lame duck coaching staff and a couple other starters who were already in the transfer portal. a win certainly would’ve been nice motivation for UF entering the 2022 season, but ultimately, head coach Billy Napier and his staff are not going to give a second thought to this game other than for potential film evaluation of the current roster. The focus is completely on changing the culture both in the locker room and on the recruiting trail, and that effort has already begun.

8. What’s next? The next big date on the Florida football calendar is National Signing Day, which is set for Feb. 2, 2022. Napier will be looking to fill out a thin Gators recruiting class with some big commitments the same way he did during the early signing period a couple weeks ago. That will come as he continues to build his coaching staff, which still has five open positions, and begins plans for spring practice in March.

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