TAMPA — Central Florida head coach Gus Malzahn and quarterback Mikey Keene turned toward wide receiver Ryan O’Keefe and running back Isaiah Bowser whenever they needed a big play.
O’Keefe torched Florida on two reverses for 108 yards, powering two touchdown drives. He burned another defender deep down the left sideline for a 54-yard score late in the third quarter to put the Knights up for good, and Bowser salted the game away with a bowl-record 35 carries for 155 yards
The duo contributed 350 yards of UCF’s 436 offensive yards and helped UCF secure a 29-17 win over UF Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
One of Florida’s downfalls was that it collected eight penalties for 85 yards, a trend that reared its head several times this season.
“We made too many mistakes as a team to win that ballgame,” interim head coach Greg Knox said. “A lot of different things, you know, personal foul penalties, jumping offsides penalties.”
Each team exchanged three and outs until Florida created offensive momentum on its third drive. The Gators raced down the field, inching toward the end zone before the drive derailed.
Quarterback Emory Jones, who entered the transfer portal before Thursday’s game, remained noncommittal about his future after the game. The redshirt junior attempted to hit tight end Kemore Gamble on third and 5, but the pass deflected off his hands. On the next play, Jones unloaded a moonshot to wide receiver Rick Wells, who had a step on his defender. The veteran wideout fell down at the end of the route, resulting in a turnover on downs.
The Gators rode down the field on the shoulders of running back Dameon Pierce the next drive. He carried the ball five times for 23 yards before he plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out on his final run.
The senior toted the rock 10 times for 52 yards in the first half, his second game with double-digit carries in 2021.
Running back Johnny Richardson kickstarted the Knights’ response, exploding for 38 yards down the right sideline. Bowser capped off the drive seven plays later via a 3-yard touchdown run, his first of two scores.
Malzahn elected to go for the 2-point conversion, but quarterback Andrew Brito’s pass fell incomplete and UF stayed ahead.
Florida threatened to strike back by crossing midfield but stalled after their third false start. Knox sent his kicking team out for the 51-yard field goal try, but kicker Chris Howard’s attempt failed to even reach the end zone.
The Knights seemed destined to reach paydirt again following the missed field goal. On their fifth play, Keene flipped the ball to O’Keefe, who raced down to Florida’s 7-yard line before safety Rashad Torrence II dragged him down.
The Gators defense bent but refused to break, though. They stuffed two straight runs before linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper chased Keene down for a 10-yard sack, holding Central Florida to a field goal to make it 9-7.
Howard avenged his earlier miss, drilling a 26-yard try to reclaim the lead.
Malzahn signaled for another reverse early in the third quarter. O’Keefe grabbed the handoff and sprinted 74 yards down the right sideline again. Bowser finished the drive a play later, scoring from four yards out to give the Knights the 16-10 lead.
Just like the first half, the Gators moved swiftly down the field, this time behind running back Malik Davis. The redshirt senior broke free down the left sideline to the tune of 32 yards. Four plays later, Davis leaped into the end zone to seal off a 19-yard touchdown run to reclaim the lead 17-16.
UCF punched back, however, and tacked on another field goal, before landing the kill shot one drive left.
After a Florida three and out, Keene found O’Keefe one-on-one with Florida’s Tre’Vez Johnson down the left sideline. O’Keefe cut back toward the middle of the field, Johnson stumbled, and the Knights receiver waltzed into the end zone for a 54-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 26-17.
UCF added a late field goal to increase its lead to 29-17. Florida finished its final season before the Billy Napier era 6-7.
Contact Zachary Huber at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zacharyahuber.