Bowl­ing ’em over

Even in the Gas­par­illa, UCF bowl win is a thrilla

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Mike Bianchi Sen­tinel Colum­nist

UCF quar­ter­back Dil­lon Gabriel (11) cel­e­brates af­ter a touch­down against Mar­shall dur­ing the Gas­par­illa Bowl on Mon­day in Tampa. Dil­lon threw for two TDs and earned Most Valu­able Player hon­ors in UCF's 48-25 win over the Thun­der­ing Herd. It was the Knights' 10th win of the sea­son, giv­ing them a third con­sec­u­tive dou­ble-digit win sea­son.

TAMPA — “Sin­gin’ in the rain,

Just sin­gin’ in the rain, What a glo­ri­ous feel­ing, UCF fans are happy again.”

With apolo­gies to the great Gene Kelly and his clas­sic movie, we saw on a stormy Mon­day af­ter­noon why “mean­ing­less” bowl games are ac­tu­ally quite mean­ing­ful. They are mean­ing­ful be­cause they give fans, play­ers and coaches another chance to have some fun and make some mem­o­ries.

UCF fans, many of whom played hooky from work, lit­er­ally were singing, danc­ing, hug­ging and high-fiv­ing in the rain as the Knights closed out a third con­sec­u­tive sea­son with at least 10 wins en route to Mon­day’s 48-25 blowout of Mar­shall in the Gas­par­illa Bowl.

UCF fans had an ab­so­lute blast watch­ing Richie Grant scor­ing the Knights’ first touch­down on a 39-yard pick-six and Tre’mon Mor­ris-Brash scor­ing another de­fen­sive TD on a 55-yard fum­ble re­turn.

They were eu­phoric when Otis An­der­son scored from 35 yards away on a fourth-and-7 swing pass or when Mar

lon Wil­liams took another short pass from quar­ter­back Dil­lon Gabriel and sprinted 75 yards for a TD.

The crowd even sang along af­ter the game as the UCF band played its ren­di­tion of Kool and the Gang’s “Cel­e­bra­tion.”

“We’re gonna have a good time tonight,

Let’s cel­e­brate, it’s all right …

Cel­e­brate good times, come on!”

As the band played, UCF play­ers proudly hoisted the Gas­par­illa Bowl tro­phy into the air dur­ing the postgame party. UCF coach Josh He­u­pel was hug­ging every­body in his path. Fresh­man Gabriel, the bowl MVP, humbly thanked the fans and paid homage to a se­nior class that has had more wins than any other class in school his­tory.

Asked what it meant to close his col­lege ca­reer with a bowl vic­tory in front of UCF’s soggy-but-cel­e­brat­ing fans, UCF se­nior linebacker Nate Evans said, “It’s heart­warm­ing how the fans have treated us. They ask for pic­tures, they ask for hugs, they ask for kisses.” Mean­ing­less bowl game? I think not. Se­ri­ously, what could be more fun for UCF fans than rel­ish­ing a bowl vic­tory in USF’s home sta­dium? Ku­dos to the 33,539 mostly

UCF fans for show­ing up and rel­ish­ing in the mo­ment and shame on those fans who have spent the last cou­ple of weeks bick­er­ing and com­plain­ing about UCF’s bowl matchup.

Granted, the Gas­par­illa Bowl is ma­jor come­down from UCF’s Peach Bowl and the Fi­esta Bowl ap­pear­ances of the past two sea­sons, but it’s still col­lege football and it’s still a chance to watch your team play one more game. I get that there are many flaws in the bowl games, which are money-losers for many of the par­tic­i­pat­ing schools and have be­come lit­tle more than pro­gram­ming for ESPN dur­ing the hol­i­day sea­son.

Even so, I don’t un­der­stand the psy­che of many col­lege football fans of to­day who com­plain about their team’s bowl matchups. I’ve heard UCF fans com­plain about hav­ing to play Mar­shall; I’ve heard Mi­ami fans com­plain­ing about hav­ing to play Louisiana Tech in the In­de­pen­dence Bowl; I’ve even heard Ga­tor fans belly­ach­ing about their matchup with Vir­ginia in the Bowl. Orange

Are you kid­ding me? It’s the freak­ing Orange Bowl, for cry­ing out loud!

Fans com­plain­ing about bowl games is akin to Scar­lett Jo­hans­son’s sig­nif­i­cant other com­plain­ing about her tat­toos. But, sadly, this mind­set has be­come more and more preva­lent among col­lege fans.

Go ahead and call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I re­mem­ber when UF fans used to be happy about go­ing to now-de­funct hol­i­day classics like the AstroBlue­bon­net Bowl or the Tan­ger­ine Bowl. And I can re­mem­ber when UCF fans used to be happy about go­ing to bowl!

And we won­der why so many play­ers these days are sit­ting out bowl games? Maybe it’s be­cause of the men­tal­ity of so many fans (and me­dia) in a col­lege football world now dom­i­nated by the play­off sys­tem. If fans don’t think bowl games are im­por­tant, then why should the play­ers? It’s like Alabama coach Nick Sa­ban warned when he first no­ticed how the bowls had been min­i­mized by the play­off.

“It used to be go­ing to the Rose Bowl — when you played in the Big Ten — was the ul­ti­mate of any ex­pe­ri­ence that you could ever have,” Sa­ban said. “If you played in the SEC, go­ing to the Sugar Bowl was that same thing. If you played in the Big 12, it was go­ing to the Orange Bowl. Those things don’t ex­ist any­more. We have a play­off, ev­ery­one’s in­ter­ested in the play­off [and] no one is in­ter­ested in any­thing else.”

“So now that [this men­tal­ity] has trick­led down to the play­ers. How can you blame the play­ers for that?”

In a way, even UCF has fallen vic­tim to the play­of­fi­fi­ca­tion any of col­lege football. The Knights, who fin­ished un­beaten in the pre­vi­ous two reg­u­lar sea­sons and have gone to ma­jor New Year’s Six bowl games, had some bowl de­fec­tions this year for the first time. UCF record-set­ting wide re­ceiver Gabe Davis joined the grow­ing num­ber of col­lege play­ers who skipped their bowl game to pre­pare for the NFL draft. Also sit­ting out the game for UCF were elec­tric run­ning back Adrian Killins and cor­ner­back Nev­elle Clarke.

If UCF were play­ing in the Cot­ton Bowl against Penn State, Davis, Killins and Co. would have prob­a­bly played. Of course, you can’t blame them for pro­tect­ing their po­ten­tial NFL fu­tures. Davis, though, was on the side­line dur­ing the game and took part in the postgame cel­e­bra­tion.

“I have to ad­mit, I missed be­ing out there play­ing to­day, but I wanted to be here with my guys,” Davis said. “Win­ning a bowl game, any bowl game, is big.”

You got that right — es­pe­cially for pro­grams such as UCF. Let’s not for­get, it wasn’t that long ago when UCF would have begged to get a bid to the Gas­par­illa Bowl. In the fi­nal year of the great Daunte Culpep­per era at UCF, the Knights fin­ished 9-2 and were NOT in­vited to play in a bowl game. UCF’s first bowl game was just 14 years ago and the Knights have only been to 10 bowl games in their his­tory.

Which is why it was re­fresh­ing to see so many UCF play­ers and fans so eu­phoric af­ter the game. It was al­most like go­ing back in time to a day and age be­fore cor­po­rate spon­sors, TV con­tracts, ESPN pro­gram­mers and the Col­lege Football Play­off selec­tion com­mit­tee got in­volved.

Yes, the Knights lost three games this sea­son, but they won 10 — again.

“You look at this sea­son: there are goals we didn’t ac­com­plish, but I hope we never get to the point as a pro­gram and a fan base where our fans and out­side voices aren’t re­ally ap­pre­cia­tive of what our kids do ev­ery sin­gle day,” He­u­pel said. “It’s tough in col­lege football to go win 10.”

Hey, can we cue up some more Kool and the Gang, please?

“There’s a party goin’ on right here,

A cel­e­bra­tion to last through­out the years,

So bring your good times, and your laugh­ter too,

We gonna cel­e­brate your party with you!” Email me at [email protected]­lando sen­tinel.com. Hit me up on Twit­ter @BianchiWri­tes and lis­ten to my Open Mike ra­dio show ev­ery week­day from 6 to 9 a.m. on FM 96.9 and AM 740.

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

STEPHEN M. DOW­ELL/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

UCF de­fen­sive back Richie Grant cel­e­brates af­ter scor­ing on a 39-yard in­ter­cep­tion re­turn in the first quar­ter against Mar­shall in the Knights’ Gas­par­illa Bowl vic­tory Mon­day in Tampa.

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