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Gator Bowl: Clemson 38, Kentucky 35

Clemson 38, Kentucky 35

BY MARK LONG
Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Phil Mafah ran for four touchdowns, including a 3-yarder with 17 seconds to play, and Clemson beat Kentucky 38-35 in a wild Gator Bowl to finish the year on a five-game winning streak.

Mafah scored three times in a back-and-forth final quarter that saw five turnovers, four touchdowns and five lead changes. Clemson (9-4) outscored Kentucky (7-6) 28-14 over the last 15 minutes.

Cade Klubnik made the play of the game when he connected with Troy Stellato for 16 yards on third-and-18 to set up Mafah’s fourth-down run that moved the chains. Mafah scored three plays later to put the Tigers up for good.

Kentucky had a final chance, but Devin Leary’s first-down pass was intercepted by Justin Mascoll.

Mafah finished with 71 yards on 11 carries. Klubnik completed 30 of 41 passes for 264 yards with no touchdowns and an interception.

Clemson trailed 21-10 after Kentucky’s Barion Brown returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards. Brown scored three touchdowns three different ways.

Kentucky looked like it would roll from there. But the Wildcats turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the fourth.

Clemson took a 27-21 lead on Mafah’s third TD.

Brown responded with a 60-yard TD catch that put UK back out front 28-27. It was short-lived because Will Shipley returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to set up a field goal. Shipley injured his leg on the play.

But the Wildcats wouldn’t go away. Leary connected with Jordan Dingle for 72 yards on the next play, setting up Ray Davis’ 1-yard scoring run.

Clemson rallied again, though, and ended up celebrating on the field afterward.

SHIPLEY INJURED

Shipley flipped head over heels out of bounds on his long return. He grabbed his knee as trainers rushed to his side. They helped him to the bench, where he sat until the cart arrived. He put a towel over his head as he was driven to the locker room for tests.

Shipley has been mum about his pending decision to enter the NFL draft, leading some to believe he was merely waiting until after the season to make his announcement.

Shipley finished what might have been his final game at Clemson with 132 all-purpose yards, including 94 on returns.

“I think finishing this game, being able to go home with family, just discuss with them, talk through everything, look at all the components and all the factors and be able to make a smart, thorough decision,” Shipley said Thursday.

GRAND ENTRANCE

Clemson fans didn’t have much to cheer about in the third quarter until former Tigers stars and current Jacksonville Jaguars standouts Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne walked onto the sideline.

Lawrence and Etienne got two of the loudest ovations from the Clemson side when they were shown on the video boards shaking hands with players and coaches during a timeout with 6:31 to play in the third.

The duo led the Tigers to the 2018 national championship and two more appearances in the College Football Playoff. Lawrence and Etienne watched the rest of the game from the sideline with Jaguars security nearby. Lawrence took a minute to sign a paw-printed towel for Clemson’s mascot.

THE TAKEAWAY

Clemson: The Tigers played without star linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (88 tackles) and standout cornerback Nate Wiggins (nine pass breakups). Both opted out of the bowl to start preparing for the NFL draft and were clearly missed as Kentucky delivered three plays longer than 40 yards.

Kentucky: Davis made the decision to play in the bowl despite turning pro and played well. He had a 43-yard scamper in the first half that set up a touchdown and finished with 63 yards on the ground.

VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Clemson athletics press release

December 29, 2023





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