It’s fitting that, after the defensive effort from UCF on Monday at the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa, a linebacker got the final carry of the game.
The Knights forced four turnovers in the first quarter alone, scoring off two, and built a 21-0 lead eight minutes into the game against the Marshall Thundering Herd (8-5). From there UCF cruised to a 48-25 victory and ended the season 10-3, its third double-digit victory season in a row, the first time that’s happened in the program’s 40-year history.
The night had it all — a falling rain that alternated from showery to downpour for the first half, turnovers, defensive scores, and skirmishes between the team that required sorting out from officials and stretched to the game to every bit of four hours. The rain gave way at halftime to minutes of setting sun and cool, breezy evening.
It was on that evening that a senior class led by Nate Evans, the linebacker who had 12 tackles on the night and even ran twice for 10 yards to close the game, earned their 41st win, another high for any four-year class at UCF.
“Everybody bought into what was going on,” Evans said after the game — he could have been talking about Monday, or when he was recruited in the winter of 2016, after the Knights had posted an 0-12 2015 season. “We felt the love from the fans and we wanted to give it back.”
Coach Josh Heupel said that, despite three losses this year, not defending its American Athletic Conference title and having multiple senior players sitting Monday out to protect their NFL Draft status, it was still “important to finish the season the right way” in the post-game press conference.
“We talked a lot about the seniors leaving a legacy.”
The Knights forced five turnovers, many thanks to a wet ball and field early in the game. Antwan Collier recovered two fumbles and had an interception.
UCF led 24-7 at the half and looked comfortable before a wild third quarter that saw 39 points and a stretch of three touchdowns and 22 points on three plays from scrimmage.
The Knights were up 7-0 before its offense even touched the ball; junior safety Richie Grant got his first career interception return, going 39 yards on the third play of the game. Two drives later, after Greg McCrae scored on a 26-yard run, linebacker Tre’Mon Morris-Brash knocked down a Marshall lateral pass, scooped it up and ran 55 yards to the end zone. UCF was off, running and only made a casual look or two back when the Herd got fiesty in the third quarter.
“Those turnovers by the defense were critical early,” Heupel said. “It created space between us and them on the scoreboard. I thought we were absolutely suffocating on the defensive side of the ball in the first half.”
Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who finished up a top-five season in the UCF books in yards and touchdown passes, threw for 260 yards and two TDs and was named the game’s MVP. He opened the third quarter by hitting Otis Anderson on a 37-yard screen pass on fourth-and-7. Having to answer consecutive Marshall touchdowns, Gabriel ran for a score and linked up with Marlon Williams on a bubble screen, and he tight-roped down the sideline to give the Knights a 45-25 lead heading into the final quarter.
UCF now leads its all-time series with Marshall, 9-3, including the last nine straight — they were members of the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA together from 2001-12.