Former Foes Meet in the Gasparilla Bowl
On Monday, December 23, two former conference foes meet in the Gasparilla Bowl. The Marshall Thundering Herd and the UCF Knights square off at Raymond Jones Stadium in Tampa. The matchup begins and 2:30 p.m., and ESPN will televise the game.
The two programs are familiar both with each other and with the Gasparilla Bowl (and its former iterations). This year’s matchup marks each program’s fourth appearance in the Bowl, with Marshall’s last appearance just last season. Further, this marks the first game between UCF and Marshall since 2012, UCF’s final year in Conference USA. The two first met in 2002, and faced off in eleven consecutive seasons. UCF was won the last eight after Marshall jumped out to a 3-0 series lead.
Marshall enters the Gasparilla Bowl with an 8-4 record, winning six of their last seven games. Doc Holliday’s Thundering Heard win those games primarily on the ground. Over the season, Marshall has racked up 196 yards per game on the ground while running the ball over 60% of the time. Despite its focus on the run game, however, Marshall has been relatively efficient through the air, averaging 7.3 yards per play.
Isaiah Green leads Marshall’s aerial attack, but he has had mixed results. He has thrown for 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions, while completing 58% of his passes. Green, however, has shown some evasiveness over the course of the season, adding four touchdowns and 281 yards on the ground. The majority of Marshall’s offense runs through Brenden Knox, who has tallied 1,284 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. He adds 129 receiving yards. Overall, however, Marshall’s offense has been mediocre this season, averaging only 26 points per game.
Defensively, Marshall has surrendered just 23 points per game, good for 42nd in FBS. Their defensive strength has been putting pressure on the quarterback. Indeed, they’ve racked up 34 sacks. The turnover margin this season favors Marshall ever so slightly, as they are +2 on the year.
The Knights have won five of their last six, and have racked up nine wins to only three losses on the year. While this team certainly isn’t the same Knights team that won twenty-five straight before dropping to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl last season, Head Coach Josh Heupel has reloaded UCF well. First-year starter Dillon Gabriel leads an efficient aerial attack. Gabriel averages nine yards per pass attempt. He has thrown for 27 scores to only seven picks. Meanwhile, junior wideout Gabriel Davis found his footing as a game-breaking receiver. He tallied 72 receptions, 1,241 yards, and 12 touchdowns this season. Tre Nixon has been a reliable target as well, adding seven touchdowns and 776 yards.
Despite the strong aerial attack, the Knights’ running game has impressed in its own right. UCF’s running attack averages over 215 yards per game. Carries, yards, and scores have been shared pretty evenly between Otis Anderson, Adrian Killins, and Bentavious Thompson. Each averages over 6 yards per carry. As if that were not enough, the Knights’ stable also includes Greg McCrae, who has also rushed over 80 times this season. McCrae averages “just” 5.3 yards per carry. As a result of the efficient and balanced attack, UCF finished 7th in the nation with 43 points per game.
The Knights defense complement that high-octane defense well. They surrender under 23 points a game. The group of Kenny Turnier, Nate Evans, Eric Mitchell, and Brendon Hayes combined for 46.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Over the season, UCF’s defense has gotten after it early in the count, causing opposing offenses to get behind the chains early and often. As a result, the Knights finished the season ranked third in the nation in third-down conversion defense. Opponents only converted 28% of the time. The danger, as with all teams that bring pressure, is that UCF has given up big plays early in the count, often on the ground.
Predicting the Gasparilla Bowl
Marshall and UCF represent diametric opposites. Marshall thrives on clock-controlling run-based offense and plays fundamentally-sound defense. UCF, on the hand, looks for the big play on both sides of the ball. In many ways, this looks like the perfect opponent for the Thundering Herd, as Marshall could take advantage of UCF’s over-pursuit and resulting tendency to give up big running plays on first and second down to keep UCF’s high-powered offense off the field. On the other hand, they cannot keep the Knights off the field all the time. And the Knights could easily pull away in this one.
If Marshall can keep a lead through the first half, though, this could be a game that goes wire to wire. If UCF starts pulling away, though, Marshall simply does not have the offensive weaponry to close the gap. Holliday’s Thundering Herd have been downright impressive in the postseason, going undefeated in six bowl games in his tenure. That said, every streak must come to an end; at least, so says the law of averages. As these former foes meet in the Gasparilla Bowl, we expect UCF to pull away 34-21.