In the aftermath of UCF’s 29-17 Gasparilla Bowl win over Florida on Thursday night, Gus Malzahn’s message about the future of his program could be summed up by one phrase:
“The best is yet to come.”
Coaches will often feed such lines to the fan bases they represent, and sometimes those declarations are empty ones. But you’d be something of a fool if you didn’t believe Malzahn, who just put what he called the “icing on the cake” on his first year in Orlando as the Knights won their ninth game of the year—doing so against a Gators team that they’ve long wanted to see on the field rather than on social media.
By the end of night, it looked pretty clear that UCF has quite the foundation to build from heading into 2022—on both sides of the ball. With that being said, it feels like that “best is yet to come” statement especially applies to Travis Williams’ defense. And that’s not meant to slight the Knights offense—UCF’s defense has just been that good down the stretch this season and the group capped off its impressive run with a dominant performance on Thursday night.
Before the 63,669 fans at Raymond James Stadium were treated to something of a show by the likes of Isaiah Bowser and Gasparilla Bowl MVP Ryan O’Keefe, it was the UCF defense that set the tone early on. UCF couldn’t kick anything into gear offensively for much of the first half, but it largely didn’t matter. Florida’s offense simply didn’t have much of anywhere to go thanks to the efforts of UCF’s front seven—and its defensive line in particular.
The Gators won the opening coin toss and elected to receive, seemingly indicating that they had confidence in their offense to grab some early momentum. That didn’t pay off, as UCF forced a quick three-and-out, with Jeremiah Jean-Baptiste forcing Emory Jones into a third-down incompletion. Florida’s second drive was also a three-and-out and even after sustaining something on its third drive, it couldn’t convert on a fourth down in UCF territory. Considering how the offensive side of the game was going, there’s no overstating how significant the early success was for the Knights on the defensive side of the ball. Had the Gators taken an early lead—especially if they had gotten a couple of early scores—things would’ve been dire for UCF.
However, the defense kept everything afloat until the offense found a spark. And as important as it was to set such a tone early, UCF’s defensive unit maintained its performance throughout, carried the team to what ended up being a comfortable victory. Once the Knights swung things in their favor offensively, there truly wasn’t much hope for Florida to get back into the game.
UCF was swarming all night and Jones often had nowhere to go. When the pocket collapsed and he looked to escape with his legs, there wasn’t much room to run. When he was extending plays and getting his throws off, the coverage from the back half of UCF’s defense was tight. As a team, the Knights totaled two sacks, eight quarterback hurries and six pass breakups. They held the Gators to a 2-of-13 mark on third down, which made for the worst third-down conversion percentage in the Gasparilla Bowl’s history. There’s no disputing that the UCF defense controlled the game.
And here’s where that “the best is yet to come” statement comes back around and suits that side of the ball so well: A lot of the unit’s top contributors in the Gasparilla Bowl—and down the season’s stretch as a whole—should return for the Black and Gold in 2022.
Losing Big Kat Bryant will be difficult, but look at the rest of the group from Thursday night and you’ll see a lot of youth and promise—youth and promise that has proven itself on the field, to be sure.
Leading tackler Tatum Bethune is a junior. Jean-Baptiste, who picked up a sack and a pass breakup on Thursday night, is also a junior. Cam Goode (one sack, two quarterback hurries) is a redshirt junior. Tre’Mon Morris-Brash (two hurries) is a junior and Josh Celiscar (one tackle for loss, one hurry) is just a sophomore. Keenan Hester and Ricky Barber, two more central figures on the defensive front, are both redshirt sophomores. The x-factor, too, is the possibility (albeit a slight one) that Kalia Davis decides to return for one final year after his 2021 season ended all too early due to injury.
And as many returners as the defensive front should have, UCF’s secondary is flush with even more young talent. Divaad Wilson is a redshirt junior, while Davonte Brown (three pass breakups), Quadric Bullard (one pass breakup), Corey Thornton, Justin Hodges are sophomores and Brandon Adams is a freshman. This wasn’t the best secondary early in 2021, but the group got better and better as the year went on and had one of its best showings to close out the season. An even bigger leap can realistically be expected in 2022.
So, wait: Bethune, Jean-Baptiste, Morris-Brash, Celiscar, Hester, Barber, Wilson, Brown, Bullard, Thornton, Hodges and Adams? That’s an impressive core that UCF’s defense will feature next fall. Not to mention, the program is set to introduce its best-ever recruiting class into the fold, which includes talented defenders such as Nikai Martinez, Ja’Cari and Demari Henderson, Keahnist Thompson, Jamaal Johnson, TJ Bullard and Kam Moore. Under the direction of Travis Williams, who Malzahn called “unbelievable” after Thursday night’s game, the Knights defense will only grow tougher and tougher.
Malzahn’s arrival in Orlando promised more complementary football than we had seen from UCF in recent years. That started to show itself at times in 2021 and eventually became a theme in the Gasparilla Bowl. But there’s reason to believe that the offense will progress a great deal in 2022 and beyond, which will pair exceptionally well with this defense, which is on the road to becoming truly special.
The best really is yet to come.