The UCF Knights have quite the bowl game history in the Tampa Bay area. What began in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg in 2009 has evolved into Raymond James Stadium in Tampa today. As someone who has been to all five Bay Area bowl games UCF has played and will be there for the 2023 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl, let’s take a small trip down memory lane.
2009 – The Mohamed Sanu Show
UCF’s first bowl in the Tampa Bay area was the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl, Presented by Beef ‘O’ Brady’s. On December 18th, the day before the game, the bowl announced that Beef ‘O’ Brady’s was the new bowl sponsor. Since it was so late in the process, we got the uncommon “presented by” in the name. This was the second edition of the St. Petersburg Bowl.
It was Knight on Knight action as UCF from Conference USA took on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights from the Big East. Unfortunately, only one team had Mohamed Sanu. As an option quarterback in high school, Sanu was given a very dynamic role as a wide receiver for Rutgers. As a freshman, played both wide receiver and took direct snaps in the Wildcat formation. It was also as a freshman that he went wild in the St. Petersburg Bowl against UCF. Sanu had three touchdowns during the game and the Scarlet Knights defense was just too much for UCF, winning 45-24.
The attendance was pretty good at 28,793, a little better than the previous year when the local South Florida Bulls. Despite the loss, this was a fun game. It was UCF’s third ever bowl game and I had been to the previous two in Hawaii and Memphis. This one allowed us to tailgate without it being cold out. The field also looked normal. You’ll see what it turned into shortly.
2012 – Blake Bortles Breaks Ball State
The 2012 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl had UCF meet Ball State from the Mid-American Conference. This was UCF’s final game as a member of Conference USA and they went out with a bang. The game was never close as UCF jumped out to a 13-0 lead and kept building for a 38-17 win.
This was Blake Bortles’ coming out party. He threw for 272 yards and three touchdowns while leading the team with 80 rushing yards and another score, sending a message that UCF was not going to be a pushover in the American Athletic Conference. Unlike in 2009 and 2014, UCF was viewed as the home team and had better seats available.
This game almost didn’t happen for UCF. When the Knights got hit with NCAA violations as a result of the Ken Caldwell scandal, the football team was given a one-year bowl ban that would have taken place in 2012. UCF appealed it saying that since the football team did not gain any players, this punishment was excessive. By appealing, the team was able to play in the 2012 bowl game, but at risk of being banned in 2013 if the appeal failed. To many people’s surprise, the NCAA agreed with UCF’s appeal, and the bowl ban was dropped. You all know what happened in 2013.
2014 – UCF’s Comeback Falls Short
In 2014, UCF was co-champion of the American Athletic Conference. Coming off arguably the most improbable win in program history, momentum was strong going into the 2014 Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. Led by Justin Holman, the Knights lined up against Jacoby Brissett and the North Carolina State Wolfpack from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
UCF’s offense struggled to find consistency. The Knights running game was held to 82 yards on 2.9 yards per carry and Holman threw the ball 53 times, completing only 44% of them on the day, but he and wide receiver Josh Reese had it going on, connecting on three touchdown passes. The last one was with 1:44 left in the fourth quarter. UCF couldn’t recover the onside kick and NC State ran the clock out to seal a 34-27 win. This would be UCF’s last appearance in St. Petersburg and the start of a dark time in UCF history.
2019 – UCF Goes Bad Boy on Marshall
In 2019, UCF returned to the Tampa Bay area, but the game was now the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa. Playing in an actual football stadium in Raymond James Stadium meant the turf didn’t look like weird and the game was more of a traditional bowl game. The Knights got to face off against their old Conference USA foe in the Marshall Thundering Herd.
The Knights exploded from the first minute of the game. Defensive Back Richie Grant had a pick-six not even a minute into the game. By the time we got halfway through the first quarter, UCF was up 21-0. Marshall countered with their own pick-six, but UCF added a field goal as time expired to build a 24-7 halftime lead. The third quarter was all about big play haymakers. UCF scored on a 35-yard pass from Dillon Gabriel to Otis Anderson on the first drive of the second half. The two teams then traded QB touchdown runs. On the first play of the next drive, Isaiah Green hit Willie for a 70-yard score. UCF countered on the next play with a 75-yard pitch and catch from Gabriel to Marlon Williams. This was some fun football.
This was an underrated game. UCF and Marshall had a rivalry during their time in the MAC and CUSA. The Thundering Herd won the first three matchups while both were in the MAC. I was at all three of those games and the first one in 2002 had such an intense atmosphere. This is an example of how ESPN was able to manufacture a rivalry. Once they joined CUSA, UCF won every matchup. Some of these games had some very dramatic finishes, including the snapping of a 17-game losing streak in 2005, Michael Torres spoiling the “We are Marshall” promo in 2006, Marshall fumbling the game away with two minutes to go in 2009, and the legendary Marshall Monsoon in 2011. I wrote about this rivalry ahead of the 2019 bowl game, but that site doesn’t exist anymore. Thank you, Google for holding saved copies of my articles.
2021 – Knights Chow Down on Some Fried Gator
In what has been the biggest game of the St. Petersburg/Gasparilla Bowl game history, UCF took on the Florida Gators from the Southeastern Conference in the 2021 edition of the Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl. With 63,669 in attendance, this was the only edition of the game to need the upper deck seating. At the time, it was also the only game with over 30,000 in attendance. The 2022 edition would also eclipse 30k.
Despite the Gators scoring first, it was a tightly contested first half with a late field goal giving Florida a 10-9 lead at the break. After trading touchdowns, UCF took over late in the third quarter and didn’t look back, scoring 13 unanswered points en route to a 29-17 win. The highlight play was Mikey Keene finding Ryan O’Keefe for a 54-yard touchdown where O’Keefe threw up the deuces in memory of former player Otis Anderson which became an iconic photo moment.
You’d be lying to yourself if you said this wasn’t the most satisfying Tampa Bay bowl victory. A convincing win over the state flagship school the same season it was announced that UCF was moving to the Big 12 a year and a half later is quite the holiday present. The UCF side of the stadium was on the opposite side of the picture above and they were packed, even after the game. The score was closer than the game made it out to be as all three Knights field goals were inside 35 yards with one from 21 yards out. It could have been more lopsided. I was at the game in 2006 when Florida blanked UCF 42-0 and it was not fun. The Knights will meet the Gators in Gainesville in 2024 with a chance to even the series 2-2.
UCF, Tampa’s Hometown Team
The Knights have had major success in Tampa since 2018. In each year, they have played a game at Raymond James Stadium and are 5-0. They defeated South Florida in 2018, 2020, and 2022 along with the 2019 and 2021 Gasparilla Bowl wins.
In the fifteen years the bowl game has been played, a school from the state of Florida has played in ten of them. UCF leads the way with six bowl-game appearances(including 2023). A Florida team has been part of the bowl game for five of the last six seasons with UCF playing in three of them. Let’s see how the UCF does against Georgia Tech in this year’s Gaparilla Bowl.
The 2023 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl will take place on Friday, December 22nd at 6:30pm on ESPN.