Replay: All Pieces Fit (Again) for UCF in Gasparilla Bowl

They really couldn't have known, could they have?
UCF football seniors Jordan Johnson and Nate Evans had no way of knowing—after arriving in the aftermath of an 0-12 season—that their four-year journeys in Orlando would be quite so chock full of memories.
Early Monday evening at Raymond James Stadium Evans couldn't stop talking about how widely the Knights had been embraced—in part because they won 35 games over their last three seasons, putting them in elite company in the college football world.
Johnson and his ever-present grin added a few tears to the equation as he pondered the end of his UCF career.
They reveled in every last moment with their teammates all during and long after UCF's more than convincing 48-25 Gasparilla Bowl victory over Marshall.
Some cynics might have dismissed the magnitude of the Knights' so-called "minor bowl" assignment, especially in the aftermath of UCF's New Year's Six appearances the last two seasons.
They weren't in the Knight locker room to listen to Evans' emotional pregame and halftime remarks to the UCF squad.
Think these Knights weren't ready for a fight Monday in their own battle for a landmark 10th win? (Only heavyweights including Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State can say they won 10 games each of the last three seasons.) Some of the penalties may not have been artful, but they also provided full evidence the Knights had their hearts in the game.
Then there's the year-long journal of rookie quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who almost a full calendar year ago, made his 5,000-mile trip over land and water from Hawaii to ply his trade for the Knights. He won the job early on, never threw an interception in any of the 10 UCF wins and led an offense that finished as the most productive in Knight history. That's saying something given the previous two seasons when Gabriel's best buddy McKenzie Milton was at the controls.
Gabriel walked out of the stadium Monday with a pirate's chest of loot, signifying the MVP award for the Gasparilla Bowl.
When it was over coach Josh Heupel went locker to locker to offer thanks and future encouragement to players in every corner of the room, knowing he might not see some of the seniors again any time soon-- and taking so long that Evans and Gabriel had to coerce him to head to the formal postgame interviews.
Heupel's first two seasons as a collegiate head coach produced a combined 22 victories—and that's not really supposed to happen, is it?
Don't tell any of them what happened in Tampa wasn't a big deal—nor a meaningful moment for UCF football.
And, no, they really couldn't have known all this magic would transpire when they signed on with the Knights.
Not long from now many little details from Monday will fade into the memory banks. Suffice it to say the score and the stats and the way the Knights did business looked almost identical to what UCF did to its opponents virtually every other Saturday.
What maybe was more noteworthy was that this time the Knights' depth and talent was more than enough to overcome the fact UCF played without its leading pass-catcher (Gabe Davis), sack-producer (the injured Brendon Hayes), pass defender (Nevelle Clark) and second-leading rusher (Adrian Killins Jr.). Add to the list of missing offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby (now in that same role at Ole Miss).
And so with Davis, Hayes, Clark and Killins among those who have played their last game in a black-and-gold uniform, in many ways the Gasparilla Bowl became something of an early preview of 2020.
While the Knights are used to simply outscoring foes with their fast-paced offensive express, this time the UCF defense effectively overwhelmed the Thundering Herd in the early going.
Junior safety Richie Grant ran an interception back for a score on the third play from scrimmage less than a minute into the action. On the very next play Grant forced a fumble that fellow junior safety Antwan Collier recovered. After a Greg McCrae 26-yard touchdown run, a Marshall misfire on a backwards pass turned into a 45-yard scoop and score for freshman Tre'mon Morris-Brash. In the blink of an eye Marshall had turned the ball over three times and the Herd trailed 21-0 before eight minutes had been played. A bit later—on the first play of the second period--1,284-yard Marshall back Brenden Knox fumbled for the first time in his career (371 carries), and Collier recovered that one, too.
The Knights ended up only a holding penalty away from a 28-0 blowout (negating a Bentavious Thompson scoring dash)—and the score at least became interesting when the Herd ran back their own interception for a TD on the very next play to make it 21-7.
But even that 14-point swing only seemed to further incent the Knights, who built a 24-7 halftime lead by not surrendering an offensive score and holding Marshall to 46 net rushing yards.
"We've got to keep playing our style of football," defensive coordinator Randy Shannon implored at intermission.
"Keep busting your butt. Don't take a play off. Dominate every single play. It's all about turnovers and tackling.
"Keep your mind in the game, have fun and nobody slack off."
Concluded Heupel, "Let's just go play our ball in the second half."
The combined 39-point third period was certifiably nuts—with, at one point, the teams trading one-play, 70-plus-yard TD drives.
A perfectly executed fourth-and-seven flat pass to Otis Anderson went for 35 yards and pushed the lead to 31-7.
A 46-yard teardrop toss to Tre Nixon set up a Gabriel three-yard run—and then Marlon Williams capped a superb day (131 receiving yards) with a 75-yard run down the Knight sideline.
By the end of the third period UCF already had rolled up 486 yards. The two teams combined for 285 yards in that crazy third period alone.
The most excitement in the final period came when Evans carried the ball twice, the second time ending at the goal line in the final minute. Evans and plenty of Knight fans will forever believe he scored on that play.
UCF's 310 rushing yards marked the fourth time the Knights surpassed the 300-yard barrier. The running game and the UCF defense proved so productive that Gabriel's 14 completions and 24 attempts fell far on the low end of his normal throwing numbers in a game.
And with that, UCF had ended the longest bowl winning streak in the country at seven.
"We talked about leaving a legacy, right?" Heupel told his group after the trophy presentations had concluded.
"Your legacy is winning. It's doing it the right way, it's competing your heart out, being really consistent and loving your brother.
"Leading into 2020, young guys, it's our challenge to take it to a whole 'nother level. Anything is possible when a group of guys comes together and plays for each other every minute of every day.
"We can accomplish whatever we want to if we're willing to put in the work."
And, with that, Evans and Johnson walked out into the moist Florida night after creating one final cause for a UCF celebration.
They likely couldn't have imagined any of this when they first enrolled to play for a program that had never reached the sort of consistent heights they've seen in qualifying for four straight bowl games, a UCF program first.
But now they know.
For Gabriel and Heupel and the others, they'll be back, attempting to add to that legacy that Evans and Johnson and the other veterans produced.
Knight Nation can't wait to see how the next chapter unfolds.
Stay tuned.