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UCF 29, Florida 17: Same old Gators bowled over by Knights

Florida hung with its little brother for the better part of the Gasparilla Bowl. But then the 2021 Gators showed up one last time.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl - UCF v Florida Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It wouldn’t have been a football game the 2021 Florida Gators played in without a wealth of chances for the team that Dan Mullen built, which fought Alabama to within a failed two-point conversion of a program-defining win.

But it wouldn’t have been a football game the 2021 Florida Gators played in without most of those chances being squandered by a team whose fortunes — much like Mullen’s tenure — will be remembered for missed opportunities because of simple mistakes.

So UCF’s 29-17 win over Florida on Thursday night in Tampa in the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl went just about to whatever script a thousand message board posters pounding on keyboards would have produced, yeah.

The meaningful deviation came near the game’s end, when a slightly overthrown pass by Emory Jones — one of dozens of inaccurate throws by Jones on the night — prompted a leap from Justin Shorter that appeared to bring him into helmet-to-helmet contact with a UCF defender. The violent collision drew no flag, but left Shorter motionless on the field for several minutes, with Florida trainers racing to his aid before he was ultimately carted off the field, likely to be taken to a local medical facility.

ESPN sideline reporter Taylor Davis did mention on the broadcast that she saw Shorter appear to be conscious enough to speak with trainers before he left the field, a good sign that his condition is potentially not life-threatening. But the hush that fell over the sellout crowd in Raymond James Stadium was at least a brief reminder that some things are more important than the scoreboard-based results of football games.

Update, December 24: Shorter “is clear to head home today” from the hospital and “is on his way to a full recovery,” according to a statement from Shorter’s family released through Florida’s official Twitter account for its football program.

By tomorrow, UCF fans will be bragging about those results — and rightly so.

Florida scored first and hung with the Knights into the third quarter despite Jones being almost totally ineffective as a passer, with the three-pronged rushing attack of Jones (62 rushing yards), Dameon Pierce (13 carries, 57 yards, one touchdown), and Malik Davis (seven carries, 86 yards, one touchdown) staking the Gators to a 17-16 lead midway through that third period.

But Florida had already played most of the game that anyone who followed this season at least somewhat expected, getting flagged for a false start before the game’s first play and generally making a mess of almost anything requiring precision or high-level execution. Missed throws and dropped passes ruined drives; so did multiple runs for next to nothing, which in turn led to more missed throws and dropped passes.

Chris Howard, Florida’s beleaguered and now relieved kicker, missed both of his field goal tries, and Florida failed to recover what would have been a gift of a muffed kick in the third quarter when a ball caromed off a UCF player on a squibbed kickoff following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Knights.

That ball bounced to a spot on the field where it looked on the broadcast like five Gators were closer to it than any Knight. Still, UCF came away with it — and then scored on the next play from scrimmage, Mikey Keene bombing a pass to do-everything receiver Ryan O’Keefe (195 yards from scrimmage on 11 touches) for a touchdown to give the Knights their first lead of more than a touchdown on the Gators.

They would keep it by running the ball and the clock in the fourth quarter, ultimately tallying 288 yards on the ground against a Florida defense that might not have done any better even if top defender Zach Carter had not opted out of the game to prepare for the 2022 NFL Draft.

And even if Florida’s defense had not worn down and yielded missed tackles and explosive plays to the Knights’ multifaceted ground game, Jones scarcely seemed able to string accurate throws together. He completed just 14 of 36 passes on the night for by far his worst completion percentage as Florida’s starter, and while several drops did not help his cause, a handful of missed throws on deep balls that could have been touchdowns and harder-than-necessary throws based on poor decisions did not help his targets, either.

But the good news for Florida is that this game and season and chapter are all over now, with Mullen fired and replaced by Billy Napier and the fresh air of a new beginning soon to enter these Gators’ lungs.

Just to be safe, though, I’d advise them to do everything in their power to get to 2022 without contracting COVID. Given the awful luck that has plagued them this year, taking exactly zero chances until the calendar flips to January seems wise.