While the USF Bulls weren’t on the UCF Knights 2023 football schedule, the Knights were still able to make an appearance as Tampa’s Hometown Team in their 6th appearance in the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl battling the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. In their first bowl game as a Big 12 program, UCF was stung by a 30-17 loss.
The George O’Leary Bowl
Among the names associated with the beginning of the rise of UCF, George O’Leary was honored pregame as a former coach of both programs in the event. The former Knight part of his brain has to have enjoyed watching the black and gold play in a bowl as a Power 5 team.
Most of the action in the opening quarter that O’Leary was present for featured UCF’s RJ Harvey and Javon Baker. Both paired their recent announcements of their return to UCF for 2024 with performances that offered fans hope for the future. While Baker and Kobe Hudson turned in the team’s two touchdowns in the first quarter, Harvey had UCF’s first hiccup on offense with a fumble.
While the Yellow Jackets managed to get to UCF’s side of the field after the turnover, the defense held them to a 27-yard field goal to make it 14-3 after the first 15:00. The Knights had an opportunity for an 18-point lead, but the wide-open score was dropped by Hudson. It was after that when Georgia Tech started to exploit the weakness in the UCF run defense.
Both teams ran for better than 110 yards before heading into the locker room tied at 17. Harvey gained 78 of his 120 yards on 15 carries in that time while the Jackets moved the ball with a pair of Haynes on the field.
Georgia Tech Quarterback Haynes King carried 12 times for 89 yards with a touchdown while Jamal Haynes turned in 128 yards on 18 carries for the night. King also completed seven of his 13 passes for 87 yards and a score.
The Key to the Game
For all the talk of both teams being weak against the ground game, former UCF offensive Coordinator Brent Key coached his Georgia Tech squad to cash in more often while making fewer mistakes. After the half, it was all Yellow Jackets.
Once the Jackets began to establish the run in the second quarter, the Knights attempted to adjust. When they did, King hit Malik Rutherford for a 41-yard touchdown that tied the game. From that point on, it felt like UCF was afraid of that big play coming again. Maybe the lack of Corey Thorton who transferred to Louisville was a factor, but the defense fell back into the 2023 theme of having the ball run down their throat.
Making the Grade
Special Teams: C
A pattern through all three phases of the game was a strong start that made it seem like UCF would coast for the bowl win — only to fall apart. Xavier Townsend opened the contest with a 47-yard return. Colton Boomer secured three points on his first field goal attempt from 27 yards out while punter Mitch McCarthy averaged 44.7 yards on three punts.
Unfortunately, Boomer would miss an opportunity to put the Knights ahead at the half. Moreover, Nikai Martinez fielded a punt inside his own 5-yard line that put a damper on their day.
289 yards of offense allowed on the ground is where the troubles begin and end. Credit to Demari Henderson for running all over the field and making plays including another interception on the season.
Jason Johnson turned in 13 tackles on the night including one for a loss. Seeing him turn in another big game to conclude his UCF career can only strike fear into the heart of Knight Nation. Not only does defensive coordinator Addison Williams have to bolster the linebacker corps next year, he has to attempt to replace his leading tackler.
UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee had to leave the game late in the fourth quarter due to a leg injury. A sad end to a game that started with him completing his first nine passes. For the rest of the game, Plumlee then connected on seven of his next 20 throws — a 35% completion rate for the rest of the game.
He recorded 198 yards in the air. 116 of those yards were to Baker who broke the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Baker’s 9th reception was from Timmy McClain for 57 yards for his only completion.
Once again, RJ Harvey was the most consistent and productive part of UCF’s offense.
After the game, UCF head coach Gus Malzahn was most disappointed that he wasn’t able to send off the seniors of his first Big 12 class with a bowl win, but that his team must and will put this game behind them to continue to build in the Power 5.
Until 2024, Knight Nation — class dismissed.