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Instant Classic in 2023 Gator Bowl; Clemson Stuns the CATS

Barion Brown - photo by Brendon D. Miller - Bluegrass Sports Nation

JACKSONVILLE – December 29, 2023 – Matthew Hudson

Kentucky came into the 2023 TaxSlayer Gator Bowl off a big win over their intrastate rivals the Louisville Cardinals, finishing their regular season at 7-5. In Mark Stoops 8th straight bowl appearance, a University of Kentucky record, the Wildcats took on the Clemson Tigers from the ACC who finished their season 8-4. Kentucky comes into this game 8-5 all time vs Clemson, but this was Mark Stoops first game against the Tigers. A game so far away from home from both teams still had a great turnout as 40,132 fans packed into Everbank Stadium for the game.  

After a rather uneventful first half which ended with the Kentucky Wildcats holding onto a 14-10 lead, the 2nd half delivered the game we were hoping to see. In comparison the 1st half had 24 points scored and 0 turnovers and the 2nd half had 49 points and 5 turnovers, quite a difference in game styles. The 4th quarter alone saw 42 points and 5 lead changes, the last being the go-ahead TD by Clemson with just 17 seconds left on the clock.

This game will be one each program will remember for a long time. Clemson for the last second heroics of Cade Klubnik and the come from behind victory to defeat a talented Kentucky team at the last second. Kentucky for seemingly having the game in hand only to commit 4 turnovers in the 4th quarter and lose what should have been a 5th bowl victory for coach Stoops. No matter which side you were rooting for though, you walked away knowing that your team left it all on the field and this was one of the most entertaining games you would ever watch.

Neither QB had an outstanding game. It was Cade Klubnik that came out on top basically because he protected the ball better than Devin Leary. Devin Leary finished the game 16-28 with 306 yards, 2 TDs, 2 Ints, and a lost fumble. Klubnik finished the game 30-41 with 264 yards and 1 Int.

Clemson’s Phil Mafah set a Gator Bowl record by scoring 4 rushing TDs in the game. Mafah finished the game with 11 attempts for 79 yards and 4 TDs. Ray Davis had some big moments for the Wildcats throughout the game but still finished below his season averages, he finished the game 13 attempts for 63 yards and 1 TD.

Kentucky’s Barion Brown set 2 different Gator Bowl records. Brown returned a Kickoff for 102 yards and a TD which was then longest TD scored in Gator Bowl history. Brown also was the first player to score a TD 3 different way in the same game, 1 rushing TD, 1 Receiving TD, and 1 Kickoff Return TD.

The 1st half each team had trouble figuring out what to do on offense as both defenses were able to keep the explosive plays to a minimum. The 2nd half was a different story as the teams combined for 42 points and seemed to score at ease. Kentucky’s defense finished the game with 8 sacks and was led by veteran starters JJ Weaver and Deone Walker. Clemson was led by Freshman Khalil Barnes who had 7 tackles and 1 FF.

1st Quarter

The Clemson Tigers striked first, after an early unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Kentucky Defense the Tigers took advantage of the good field position as Jonathan Weitz connected on a 39-yard field goal with 11:16 left in 1st. Clemson with the early lead 3-0.

Kentucky was able to get on the board behind the big rushes of Ray Davis and Barion Brown. Davis put the Wildcats in scoring position with a 43-yard rush down to the Clemson 22. Brown was able to take it in on a 22-yard jet sweep and gave the Wildcats their first lead of the game. Extra Point by Alex Raynor was good. Kentucky with the lead 7-3.

2nd Quarter

Clemson retook the lead with 10:17 remaining in the 2nd Quarter. The Tigers moved the ball primarily behind the passing of Cade Klubnik but it was Phil Mafah that was able to punch it in from the 2 yard line. Extra point by Jonathan Weitz was good. Clemson now ahead 10-7.

The Wildcats didn’t trail for long as they manufacture a quick 4 play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 5-yard TD pass from Devin Leary to Dane Key. Extra Point by Alex Raynor was Good. Wildcats back on top 14-10 over Clemson with 7:44 left in the 2nd Quarter.

3rd Quarter

On the first play of the 2nd half Barion Brown made Gator Bowl history. Brown returned the Kickoff 102-yards for a Kentucky Touchdown. Extra Point by Alex Raynor was Good. Kentucky now with the largest lead of the game 21-10 with 14:47 left in the 3rd.

4th Quarter

Clemson didn’t go down without a fight. A long 14 play 70-yard drive got the Tigers back in the game, Phil Mafah got in for his 2nd TD of the game. Clemson attempted a 2-point conversion to cut the lead to 3 but were unsuccessful. Kentucky still on top 21-16 with 14:56 left in the 4th.

A flurry of turnovers was the story of the 4th quarter. A fumble by Kentucky’s Devin Leary on the UK 25 looked to put Clemson in great position to take the lead. The very next play however Cade Klubnik retuned the favor and threw an INT to Jordan Lovett. A brief break as Kentucky put together 5 plays of offense before once again turning the ball over to Clemson, this time as an INT.

Clemson was finally able to capitalize on their great field position off the turnover. They finish off a short drive with a Jonathan Weitz 28-yard FG. Kentucky clinging to a 2 point lead, 21-19.

Barion Brown fumbled the ball on a jet sweep giving the Tigers their best starting field position of the game at the UK 11. Clemson didn’t waste any time as Phil Mafah scored on the very next play with an 11 yard rush. Klubnik connected with Brown for the 2-point conversion. Tigers back on top 27-21 with 6:45 remaining.

Big plays have been Barion Browns calling card all year and all day. Devin Leary connects with Brown again, this time for a 60-yard recieveing touchdown. Extra Point by Alex Raynor is Good. Kentucky takes the narrow 1-point lead with 6:12 remaining.

Will Shipley had a rather quiet game for Clemson but came up huge with a big kickoff return that had Clemson starting out once again in FG range. Good thing for the return as Clemson runs 3 plays but only gains 2 yards. Jonathan Weitz steps up and makes a 52-yard FG by bouncing it over the crossbar. Clemson takes the lead 30-28.

Another big play as Devin Leary connects with Jordan Dingle for 72-yards who is brought down on the 2-yard line. Ray Davis does the rest and was able to punch it in. Kentucky back on top 35-30 with just 2:34 remaining in the game.

Clemson put together a 2-minute drive that will be talked about for years to come. With 2:34 left in the 4th quarter the Tigers received the ball at their own 32-yard line, down by 5 points they knew a FG wasn’t an option. Cade Klubnik proceeded to march the Tigers 68 yards down the field on 8-8 passing to score with just 17 seconds remaining and take the lead 36-35. Klubnik connected with Sapp for the 2-point conversion. Clemson leads 38-35.

Kentucky threw an interception on their first play of the last drive as they tried to hit a big play and get into scoring position with just 17 seconds left in the game. Clemson finished the game with a kneel down to run the clock out.

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