2:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Central Florida -17, Over/Under: 61
A pair of Non-Power Five teams look to end the 2019 campaign with a bang, as the Central Florida Golden Knights meet the Marshall Thundering Herd in the Bad Boy Motors Gasparilla Bowl from Raymond James Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida. After going 25-1 in the previous two seasons culminating in trips to the Peach and Fiesta Bowls, a reality check seemed long past due for Central Florida (9-3, 6-2 in AAC), who failed to reach the impressive heights of their predecessors in 2019, ending their two-year reign as top dog in the American Athletic Conference. With that said, credit the Golden Knights for securing a fourth consecutive bid for a Bowl, which is something rather significant when you consider the fact that this is a program that is only four years removed from a winless term that prompted an complete revolution. In his second season as the Head Coach, Josh Heupel kept the ball rolling in Orlando, leading his charges to their fourteenth winning record in the relatively brief history of the football team, reaching nine victories for only the ninth time since the program was established back in 1996. However, what has made this season truly impressive for UCF is the fact that they managed to reach this point despite the massive uncertainty swirling around the team entering the year. Of course, their prolific Quarterback, McKenzie Milton (59.2%, 2,663 YDS, 9.2 Y/A, 25 TD, 6 INT in 2018), was to miss the entirety of his Senior Season after suffering a serious knee injury in the school’s Regular Season Finale last year, leaving many in the program wondering if he’d ever play again. Initially, Heupel’s solution was Notre Dame Transfer, Brandon Wimbush (54.2%, 167 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 2 TD, 0 INT), who after falling out of favor with the Coaching Staff at South Bend, made his way South, earning the Starting Gig during over the Summer. His stay wouldn’t last very long, as Heupel opted to bench him following the Season Opener, in which he only managed to 12-of-23 Passes for 168 Yards in a 62-0 rout of Florida A&M. After all, Central Florida had become known for their high-octane brand of Offense over the past few years, and the Senior never quite felt like a proper fit for what they were accustomed to doing on that particular side of the football. And that’s when the former Oklahoma Sooner turned to a relative unknown commodity in the form of Freshman, Dillon Gabriel (59.2%, 3,393 YDS, 9.0 Y/A, 27 TD, 7 INT), who has acquainted himself very well within the confines of the attack. Gabriel saw a good bit of action in that drubbing of the Rattlers, outperforming his more notable teammate, completing 9-of-13 Attempts for 127 Yards and Three Touchdowns, which was clearly enough to win over Heupel and the Coaching Staff. Since that point, he’s done nothing but prove their faith in him correct, throwing for 3,393 Yards and Twenty-Seven Touchdowns, with five different performances tossing at least three scores. Furthermore, the Offense looks like it did under Milton; the Knights have averaged a robust 43.0 Points per Game (7th Overall) on 536.6 Total Yards, including 320.0 Yards through the air and another 216.6 Yards on the ground, surpassing 500 Yards of Offense on seven occasions this season, including no fewer than 600 four times, all the while being relegated below thirty points just once. While the media has rarely taken them seriously due in part to the standing of the American Athletic, this remains a team that is no stranger to talent, which has no doubt aided their young Quarterback in his acclimation. The Backfield is loaded with ample ball-carriers, including Otis Anderson (104 CAR, 665 YDS, 6.4 Y/C, 5 TD), Adrian Killins (87 CAR, 629 YDS, 7.2 Y/C, 7 TD), Greg McCrae (84 CAR, 449 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 6 TD), and Bentavious Thompson (78 CAR, 530 YDS, 6.8 Y/C, 8 TD), while Junior Receiver, Gabriel Jones (72 REC, 1,241 YDS, 17.2 Y/R, 12 TD), may just be the best pass-catcher that you’ve never heard of. In his third season in Orlando, he’s posted a whopping 1,241 Receiving Yards, leading the conference to go along with his Twelve Touchdown Receptions. At 6-3, 212 lbs. Jones has tremendous size and length to win contested balls with smaller, outmatched Defensive Backs, which is something hat he’s done routinely in 2019, leading to a quartet of games in which he’s amassed over 100 Yards and a pair of scores. He played a large role in Central Florida’s easy 34-7 victory in the Regular Season Finale against fellow sunshine state denizen, South Florida, accounting or two of his side’s first Three Touchdowns of the affair. He and Gabriel hooked up for Eight Receptions, 106 Yards and a pair of scores, with the former completing 23-of-39 Passes for 270 Yards and Two Touchdowns. This was about as one-sided a matchup as you could imagine, with the listless Bulls simply playing out the string before reliving their Head Coach, Charlie Strong of his duties, while the hosts racked up 539 Total Yards, including 232 Yards on the ground, 115 of which came courtesy of the aforementioned Killins. In all honesty, this contest would have been even more in favor of the home side had it not been for a whopping Eleven Penalties for 112 Lost Yards. How about that, folks, not even the Referees can stop this Offense. While they’re probably disappointed that they’re not participating in a more prestigious Bowl, the Knights must enjoy the fact that they won’t have to leave the state of Florida, where they’ve been quite good over the past few years, going 7-0 this season in this regard, and winning twenty-two consecutive games in their home state dating back to 2017.
Meanwhile, surviving a slow start is a frequenter of the early stages of the Postseason, as Marshall (8-4, 6-2 in CUSA) make their seventh appearance in a Bowl in the last nine years, including their third straight, with this marking their second consecutive trip to the Gasparilla Bowl. Of course, the Thundering Herd make short work of another Floridian representative from the American Athletic Conference a year ago, smashing South Florida in a 38-20 victory last December. Doc Holliday’s charges raced out to a commanding 28-7 lead early in the Second Quarter and never looked back, hanging 503 Yards of Total Offense, including a whopping 282 Rushing Yards and Five Touchdowns, on the Bulls. In fact, this team has made it quite a habit of traveling to St. Petersburg this time of year, making their fourth such trip there in the variety of different Bowls that it’s hosted, from the St. Petersburgh Bowl to the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl to the Gasparilla Bowl, tasting victory on each occasion. And speaking of tasting victory in the Postseason, there are few that have proven better in College Football than Holliday, who comes into tonight’s affair looking to extend his personal undefeated record in Bowls to 7-0. Needless to say, this guy sure as hell knows how to get his troops prepared to play in these oftentimes unpredictable contests. Since 2013, he’s turned the Herd into one of the more consistent Mid-Major Programs in the country, compiling a stellar 61-30 record (.670), which includes four 9-Win Campaigns, with a shot at a fifth tonight against the Golden Knights. As we stated earlier, 2019 did not start off in ideal fashion for he and his team, falling to 2-3 after the first week of their league schedule. The Defense was atrocious, yielding a miserable 411.6 Total Yards, with their nadir arriving in the form of a 14-52 shellacking at the hands of Cincinnati, who hung a season-worst 525 on them. With that said, their 13-24 defeat at Middle Tennessee State the following week was arguably more embarrassing, for in addition to giving up 401 Total Yards to their Conference USA neighbor, they saw a staggering 578 Total Yards of their own largely negated by their own mistakes, committing a season-high Four Turnovers. That would be the point in which things truly changed for Marshall, who would go to win six of their final seven outings, with Holliday and the Coaching Staff undoubtedly pleased to see their team cleaning up their act on both sides of the football. Offensively, they would commit just Five Turnovers the rest of the way, averaging 26.7 Points on 374.6 Total Yards, led by Sophomore Tailback, Brenden Knox (244 CAR, 1,284 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 11 TD), averaging 127.0 Yards per Game over that span with Seven Touchdowns. Knox was one of many members of the herd that enjoyed last year’s trip to St. Petersburg, gashing South Florida for Ninety-Three Yards and a score on just Twelve Carries in that victory. Fellow Sophomore, Isaiah Green (57.5%, 2,265 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 14 TD, 9 INT), will be looking to replicate that success as well, particularly after the Quarterback, spent much of his second season as the Starter attempting to overcome the dreaded Sophomore Blues. Though is team won two of their final three games to end the Regular Season, Green struggled mightily down the stretch, completing a dreadful 46.0% of his Attempts for an average of just 129.7 Yards on 6.2 Yards per Attempt, with Two Touchdowns and Three Interceptions. Defensively, Marshall managed to stop the bleeding after their dreadful start to the term, stiffening considerably against the Pass as they allowed just Four Passing Touchdowns over the final seven games, relegating opposing Quarterbacks below 200 Passing Yards on four occasions, while racking up Ten Takeaways. In the end, it all added up to relinquishing a far more respectable 19.9 Points per Game on 326.7 Total Yards, with a young group finally growing into their roles. Senior Linebacker, Omari Cobb (107 TKL, 17.0 FL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 1 PD), led a group littered with Underclassmen, totaling 107 Tackles, and a team-high Seventeen Tackles for Loss, while Sophomore Defensive End, Darius Hodge (40 TKL, 8.5 TFL, 7.0 SK), emerged as a threat off the edge with 8.5 Stops for a Loss and 7.5 Sacks, with second-year Defensive Back, Steven Gilmore (45 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT, 3 PD), pacing the unit with a pair of Interceptions. A strong performance against a high-powered group such as Central Florida would provide these kids with an invaluable experience heading into 2020, when they figure to be far more seasoned with so many of their number expected to return to school.