The Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl will feature two former conference foes squaring off for the first time in seven years when the UCF Knights and Marshall Thundering Herd meet at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Both programs finished second in the East divisions of their respective conferences, UCF in the American and Marshall in Conference USA.
Continuing the trend of similarities, both UCF (9-3) and Marshall (8-4) also ended the year with tight victories to keep positive momentum entering bowl season. The Knights won each of their final two games and five of the last six — with the only loss coming by three points at Tulsa — culminating in a dominant 34-7 win over South Florida. In fact, UCF's three losses in 2019 came by a whopping grand total of seven points, with only Tulsa, Pittsburgh (35-34), and Cincinnati (27-24) getting the better of the Knights this season. Josh Heupel's team certainly put up points in bunches in its wins, though, averaging more than 47 per game in its nine wins in 2019.
Marshall also closed on a positive note, with a 30-27 overtime win over Florida International in the regular-season finale. The Thundering Herd started just 2-3 with losses to now-ranked Boise State and Cincinnati in the early going, but the win over FIU finished an impressive stretch where the Herd won six of their final seven games, with three of those wins coming by five or fewer points.
The Knights and Thundering Herd are actually quite familiar with each other as programs, as they met every year from 2002 through '12, first as members of the MAC then as part of Conference USA. Marshall won each of the first three meetings but it's been all UCF ever since, with the Knights winning each of the next eight matchups. When the two sides met in late October during the 2012 season, some still-familiar names stood out, as Blake Bortles (UCF) and Rakeem Cato (Marshall) each passed for two touchdowns while Latavius Murray powered UCF on the ground with 156 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl: UCF (9-3) vs. Marshall (8-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 23 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Where: Raymond James Stadium (Tampa, Fla.)
Spread: UCF -17.5
When UCF Has the Ball
The Knights were one of the most dangerous teams offensively during the regular season, both in terms of yardage and scoring. Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel pilots the nation's fourth-most prolific offense, which generates nearly 537 total yards per game, while he ranks 12th in FBS individually with nearly 283 passing yards per game this season. His best game came against Stanford in Week 3, when he torched the Cardinal for 347 yards and four touchdowns through the air in a signature road win.
Strong quarterback play is typically complemented by potent receiving threats, which UCF certainly possesses. Gabriel Davis is fifth in the nation with 1,241 receiving yards and ninth with 12 touchdown catches. Even more impressive than his 103.4 yards per game is that he does so despite averaging six receptions per game. The Knights aren't as strong on the ground as in recent seasons as Otis Anderson and Adrian Killins have combined for just under 1,300 rushing yards thus far. While Davis and Killins have been valuable weapons for Gabriel this season, there is some question regarding their status for Monday's game. Davis has already declared for the NFL Draft and could decide to skip this matchup.
Defensively, Marshall was one of the better teams in Conference USA in the regular season, finishing fourth in both scoring (23.1 ppg) and total (362.3 ypg) defense. Interestingly, Marshall does a good job of getting to the quarterback (2.83 sacks per game), to rank among the top 30 in the nation in that respect, but are in the bottom 40 when it comes to tackles for a loss (5.3 per game).
When Marshall Has the Ball
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Isaiah Green finished the regular season right around the middle of the pack among Conference USA — and FBS, for that matter — quarterbacks in most statistical categories. His 2,265 yards (188.8 per game) and 14 touchdowns were good for seventh and eighth in C-USA. He did, however, average a first down every time he connected with a receiver, passing for 12.58 yards per completion this season.
Whereas UCF's strength offensively lies with its quarterback, Marshall's lies squarely with its rushing attack. Brenden Knox leads all C-USA running backs with 1,284 rushing yards — good for 17th in FBS — and he's third in the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns. His 220-yard, two-touchdown performance against eventual C-USA champion Florida Atlantic on Oct. 18 — arguably his best in 2019 —propelled Marshall's offense in a key 36-31 road win. On the receiving side, though, due to Green's low yardage total the Herd doesn't have a single player in the nation's top 180 in yards or touchdowns.
UCF totaled nearly 200 yards per game more than its opponent on any given week during the regular season, thanks to its defense holding teams under 350 yards per contest. The Knights rank behind only Navy for the best total defense in the AAC, but their real calling card is in generating pressure in the backfield. UCF leads the nation in tackles for a loss with 9.3 per game, while also generating more than 2.5 sacks per outing.
UCF and Marshall are polar opposites with regard to how they effectively move the ball on offense, with UCF spreading it out through the air while Marshall remains committed to the run. The Thundering Herd's momentum could certainly be a factor, as their knack for winning down the stretch definitely plays in their favor. But the difference in this game, might just be UCF's havoc-creating defense and the lengthy down-and-distance scenarios it will likely create for Marshall's offense.
Prediction: UCF 38, Marshall 23
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of Marshall Athletics)