#22 Clemson Defeats Kentucky 38-35 in A Thrilling Gator Bowl

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Running back Phil Mafah ran for a TaxSlayer Gator Bowl-record four touchdowns, including three in the fourth quarter to earn game MVP honors, as Clemson came back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit for a 38-35 win over Kentucky (7-6) at EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla. The Tigers (9-4) finish the season on a five-game winning streak and boasting a postseason victory in an FBS-record 13 straight seasons. 

“At the end of the day we found a way,” said Head Coach Dabo Swinney, who passed Bobby Bowden with his ACC-record 12th bowl victory. “That’s what these guys have done all year. We had a decision to make at 4-4. And they decided to continue to believe, to stay together and keep moving. And now here we are with a five-game winning streak. The credit goes to these players. I’m really, really proud of them, they never quit, a lot of adversity today. This is what we do, this is who we are – we finish.” 

Clemson trailed 21-10 entering the fourth quarter and exploded for a school-record-tying 28 fourth-quarter points and the defense forced four turnovers in the final frame to lead the Tigers to a fifth Gator Bowl victory in school history. 

The Tigers tallied 367 yards of offense, including 264 through the air and 103 on the ground. Mafah scored touchdowns on four of his 11 carries, finishing with 71 yards. Sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 30-of-41 passes, including going 8-for-8 on the game-winning drive that ended with Mafah’s fourth score with 17 seconds remaining. The game featured five lead changes in the game’s final 6:45, with the Tigers striking the final blow 

Clemson scored on its opening possession, fueled in part by a 34-yard kickoff return by Shipley and a Wildcat personal foul penalty on the first play from scrimmage. Weitz nailed a 39-yard field goal, giving the Tigers the 3-0 lead. 

Kentucky got in the end zone on its second possession as Barion Brown scored off of a 22-yard touchdown run and gave the Wildcats a 7-3 first-quarter lead. Clemson’s defense did not let Kentucky gain any yardage on its next possession and only allowed two yards on the following, resulting in back-to-back three-and-outs. 

A 28-yard completion to Jake Briningstool set up Phil Mafah to push his way one yard through traffic for a Clemson touchdown, giving the Tigers a 10-7 lead with 10:17 left in the first half. Kentucky responded quickly with a 58-yard completion to Dane Key followed by a five-yard touchdown pass to Key, bringing the score to 14-10 in favor of Kentucky with 7:44 remaining in the second quarter. Kentucky maintained that four-point advantage heading into halftime.

The Wildcats opened the second half with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Brown, extending the score to 21-10. Though NCAA recordkeeping limits returns to 100 yards, the return unofficially covered 102 yards.

Clemson clawed back and drove 70 yards on 14 plays as Mafah found his way into the end zone for a second time from a yard out. The drive covered 6:43, and Mafah’s score came on the first play of the fourth quarter. Klubnik’s two-point pass attempt was knocked down at the goal line, leaving Clemson a 21-16 deficit with 14:56 to play. 

Clemson’s defense then continued to build momentum as Justin Mascoll recovered a loose ball after an Xavier Thomas sack forced Devin Leary to fumble, giving Clemson’s offense the ball back on Kentucky’s 25-yard line. On Clemson’s first play following the turnover, Klubnik got hit as he threw a deep ball which allowed Jordan Lovett to pick it off and give the ball right back to Kentucky. 

However, Kentucky wouldn’t have the ball for long as on its third play, Barrett Carter batted Leory’s pass up to himself and caught the ball for the interception. After driving 26 yards down the field, Weitz made a 28-yard field goal to draw the Tigers to within two at 21-19.

On Kentucky’s next offensive play, Khalil Barnes knocked the ball out of Barion Brown’s hands and once again Carter was there to recover the loose ball. Clemson capitalized immediately with Mafah running 29 yards for the touchdown. A short completion to Tyler Brown gave Clemson two more points to give the Tigers a 27-21 lead with 6:45 left in the game. 

Just 33 seconds later, Leary found Brown for a 60-yard touchdown pass to return the advantage to Kentucky. The Wildcats’ lead would not last long as Weitz kicked a dramatic career-long and Gator-Bowl-record 52-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar and through the uprights to give Clemson a 30-28 lead with 4:20 left to play. 

Kentucky then produced another quick touchdown drive which started with a 72-yard gain from Jordan Dingle and finished with a one-yard touchdown run from Ray Davis to return the lead to the Wildcats. 

Clemson got the ball back with 1:41 left in the game and all three timeouts. A five-yard run from Mafah kept the drive alive on a crucial 4th-and-2. Two plays later, Klubnik found Briningstool for 15 yards and then Mafah finished the job with a three-yard touchdown run to give Clemson a 38-35 lead. Klubnik hit on all eight of his pass attempts on the final drive for 71 yards. 

Freshman cornerback Shelton Lewis sealed the victory for the Tigers as he came up with an interception — Clemson’s fourth turnover of the quarter — with nine seconds left. 

Clemson now turns its attention to the 2024 season. Clemson will open next season in the national spotlight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta when the Tigers renew their regional rivalry with the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, Aug. 31. Clemson’s full schedule for the 2024 campaign is still TBA, but Clemson’s opponents for the season are listed below:

HOME: Appalachian State (Sept. 7), The Citadel (Nov. 23), South Carolina (Nov. 30), Louisville (TBA), NC State (TBA), Stanford (TBA), Virginia (TBA)

AWAY: Florida State (TBA), Pitt (TBA), Virginia Tech (TBA), Wake Forest (TBA)

NEUTRAL: Georgia (Aug. 31)

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