UCF has a chance to attack a Gators’ defense missing several talented defensive players. The Knights offense features a trio of running backs including Northwestern graduate transfer Isaiah Bowser, the electric sophomore Johnny Richardson, and former Auburn transfer redshirt sophomore Mark-Antony Richards.
Knights Head Coach Gus Malzahn has the horses to wear down Florida’s defense with a mix of different backs. The run game can keep the chains moving and eventually open up passing lanes for true freshman quarterback Mikey Keene.
Florida lost defensive players to the NCAA transfer portal who will miss the bowl game, and a key player that’s opting out of the Gasparilla Bowl to prepare for the NFL Draft. The Gators will be without starting linebacker Mohamoud Diabate, edge rushers Khris Bogle and Zachary Carter (opted out), outside linebacker Lloyd Summerall and defensive lineman Dante Zanders.
Diabate leads the Gators with 89 tackles, while Carter leads in sacks with eight, as well as leads in tackles for loss with 11. The Florida defense will still feature one of the nation’s best defenders.
The Gators defense will have potential 2022 first-round draft pick cornerback Kaiir Elam against the Knights. Elam will make the decision to forgo his senior season for the NFL or play another season under new Head Coach Billy Napier. The talented cornerback has 76 tackles, five interceptions and 20 defended passes in 29 games during his time in Gainesville.
“My plans are to beat UCF and make a lot of plays,” Elam said.
UCF enters the matchup with the 37th ranked rushing offense (188.7 ypg) and rank 39th nationally in scoring offense with 32.2 points per game.
Coach Malzahn announced on Monday that Bowser recovered from his leg injury and will return to the offensive lineup on game day.
Bowser has the ability to be a three-down back and potentially land a spot on an NFL roster with a productive game against the Gators. Despite missing several games while dealing with knee and ankle injuries, Bowser tallied 124 carries for 548 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in seven games.
In his first game as a Knight, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound back rushed 33 times for a career-high 172 yards and a touchdown in UCF’s thrilling season opener against Boise State. In week two, Bowser scored four rushing touchdowns against Bethune-Cookman, just the third Knight to do so. Bowser will play a big role if fully healthy and could rush for the majority of the carries.
“Bowser’s doing good; he’ll play,” Coach Malzahn said. “It was really good for him to have the time off. He’s practiced extremely well, and obviously, everybody knows he’s a big factor for our offense.”
As a result of Bowser's knee and ankle injuries throughout the season, the rushing game has been a mix of Richards and Richardson. Richards recorded 48 attempts for 309 yards and a career-high five touchdowns, while Richardson finished the regular season with 101 carries for 693 and three touchdowns.
Richardson, from Polk County, Fla., adds a different dynamic to the UCF offense. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound sophomore can switch gears and explode past defenders with electric speed. Coach Malzahn said the Lake Wales product and Richards helped carry the mail after Bowser’s injuries.
"It's been a next-man-up with running backs," Coach Malzahn said after defeating USF on Nov. 26. "I think both of those guys started out No. 5 and 6 on the first day of fall camp. They were (No.) 1 and 2 out there today against our rival, and I thought both of them played well."
UCF (8-4, 5-3 American) is set for an in-state matchup against Florida (6-6, 2-6 SEC) in a sold-out Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday at 7 p.m. with coverage on ESPN.
The Knights can set the tone for recruiting in the state of Florida with a victory over the Gators. UCF ended the early signing period as the 42nd ranked class, including adding the impressive three-star running back Jordan McDonald out of Alpharetta, Georgia (Milton High School) to the 2022 running back group.
“It’s a big challenge but it’s what we talked about when we first got here,” Coach Malzahn stated. “It’s a great opportunity for our program and our players understand that.”