5 takeaways as Florida ends season with Gasparilla Bowl loss to UCF

Florida’s 2021 season mercifully came to an end on Thursday night, but not before one last disappointing performance to cap things off. The 6-6 Gators drew the 8-4 UCF Knights in the Gasparilla Bowl, and UCF looked like the more motivated team at Raymond James Stadium. UF led 10-9 at the half, but UCF had a much better second half and eventually took the lead, pulling away for a 29-17 win that sealed the Knights as the top team in the state of Florida this season.

It was a chippy contest, and the ending was a bit overshadowed by an emotional and scary moment when Gators receiver Justin Shorter went down after a hit to the head and had to be carted off the field. The game was all but over at that point, but it certainly took away whatever wind remained in Florida’s sails. UCF became the first in-state team other than Florida State or Miami to beat the Gators since Stetson in 1938.

With the season officially in the books, it’s now new coach Billy Napier‘s team entirely, and Thursday night’s game made it clear that he has a lot of work to do. Here are five takeaways from the bowl loss.

It wasn’t a great audition for Emory Jones

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Emory Jones had already entered the transfer portal, and he intends to head elsewhere next season. It’s a decision that makes sense, as Anthony Richardson appears to be the future of the position (health permitting), and credit to Jones for choosing to play in this game when many players in his position wouldn’t have.

But if he was hoping that his performance would make a strong case to power programs around the country, he was almost certainly disappointed. Jones had some success on the ground, taking 10 carries for 62 yards, but he was almost entirely ineffective in the passing game. He completed just 14 of 36 passes for 171 yards while not finding the end zone.

However, that’s not because the plays weren’t there. Jones missed two would-be touchdowns on deep balls that missed the mark. A trick-play pass from Trent Whittemore to Kemore Gamble also came up short, and Florida simply missed too many opportunities on offense in this one. I wish Jones all the best moving forward, but this game illustrated why it just didn’t work with him this season.

Senior running backs end Florida careers on a high note

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At one point this season, Florida’s run game was among the best in college football. That success has faded a bit during the latter part of the season, and while it wasn’t enough to get their team a win, UF’s senior running backs in Malik Davis and Dameon Pierce ended their Gators careers in a good way.

Davis was especially effective, taking six carries for 81 yards, while Pierce had 13 carries (his second double-digit carry outing of the season) for 57 yards. Both found the end zone once, and Davis got more carries later in the game as Pierce carried eight times in the first quarter alone.

Neither has officially declared for the NFL draft, but Davis, a fifth-year, and Pierce, a potential 2022 draft prospect, will in all likelihood choose to move on. If Thursday night was their final performance in the orange and blue, they went out on a high note.

Gators had no answer for a pair of UCF playmakers

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The Gators were facing a true freshman quarterback in Mikey Keene in this one, and though he didn’t have a prolific day, he was very efficient. He completed 14 of 22 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown, and that touchdown came on a 54-yard bomb to slot receiver Ryan O’Keefe, who got behind a tripped-up Tre’Vez Johnson in the defensive backfield.

O’Keefe finished with seven catches for 85 yards and a touchdown to go with 110 rushing yards on four carries (one 74-yard carry helped inflate the numbers). He’s UCF’s best playmaker, and he certainly lived up to that billing in this one. Florida’s run defense, which has struggled all season, had no answer for running back Isaiah Bowser, either. He had 155 yards and two scores on 35 carries as the Knights ran for 288 yards on a shorthanded Gators defense.

There weren’t many positives to take away from UF’s game on defense. With Zachary Carter and Mohamoud Diabate not playing due to a draft opt-out and transfer decision, respectively, Tyron Hopper had a hot start to the game. He made four tackles with a sack and was all over the field, but he was ejected on a questionable call after he “threw a punch.” Regardless, he left the game, leaving UF’s linebacker group even thinner, and it missed him severely in the second half.

Special teams is a major issue

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It’s been overshadowed by the other problems plaguing this team, but the degradation of special teams this season has been almost stunning to watch. In 2019, Florida had a punter who is now starting in the league in Tommy Townsend and the most accurate kicker in SEC history in Evan McPherson. Townsend left after that season and McPherson followed suit after 2020, and the team hasn’t been able to replace them.

New punter Jeremy Crawshaw has been alright, but the placekicker position has been all over the place. Florida has shifted back and forth between former walk-on Chris Howard and Mississippi State transfer Jace Christmann. Howard got the nod in this one, and he didn’t play very well. He missed two of his three kicks, and though both were from 45 or longer, he also struggled on kickoffs.

He booted the ball out of bounds to open the second half, setting up a touchdown drive for the Knights, and an attempted squib kick from midfield after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty bounced off the head of a UCF player after just nine yards. New kicker Trey Smack will hopefully solve some of these problems for the Gators, but it’s clear special teams is a problem that the new coaching staff will need to focus on.

Don’t overreact to this one

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I don’t say this to take away from what was an undeniably big moment for UCF’s football program. Beating the flagship, even with an outgoing coaching staff and a number of players unavailable, is a praiseworthy accomplishment for first-year Knights coach Gus Malzahn.

But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend this game is much of a reflection on Florida’s program moving forward. UCF used most of its available bowl practices, while the Gators didn’t even come close. Likely no one from the current staff is staying on under Napier, and they were probably not very motivated to coach a good game in this one, nor were the players motivated to win this game.

That lack of motivation is certainly an indictment of the current coaching staff, but it doesn’t reflect on the one that’s coming in and has already made a lot of moves that should inspire confidence in the UF fanbase. Starting tomorrow, this is Napier’s program entirely, and he will start to reshape it according to his long-term vision.

There will be a lot of changes in the coming weeks and months, and I expect this team to look a lot different next season, even if it isn’t tremendously improved. This is a disappointing way to end a season that was already disappointing, but it also represents the final chapter in an era that has now come to an end.

Brighter days should be ahead for Gator nation.

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