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Halftime musings: Clemson trails Kentucky in Gator Bowl

Toby Corriston
Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik throws a pass against Kentucky in the first half of the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday, Dec. 29.

The No. 22 Clemson Tigers currently trail the Kentucky Wildcats 14-10 at halftime. Live from EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida, here are our key takeaways from the first two quarters:


— Klubnik is off to a lukewarm start, completing 13 of 18 passes for 95 yards this half. Midway through the first quarter, a rough series shook his confidence after throwing consecutive incompletions intended for Adam Randall and Tyler Brown, which were broken up by the Wildcats. 

— The offense was relatively quiet to open the game. Although Garrett Riley’s unit dominated possession, holding onto the ball for over 18 minutes compared to Kentucky’s 12, the Tigers’ drives were short. They averaged 3.1 yards per play on the ground and 7.3 in the air — half the distance of the Wildcats’ average of 14.5 yards per completion. 

— Running back Phil Mafah scored the Tigers’ first touchdown, set up by a 28-yard pass from Klubnik to tight end Jake Briningstool. Mafah finished the half leading the team with five carries for 32 yards, while Briningstool took the lead through the air with five receptions for 54 yards.


Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary connected with Dane Key on a 5-yard down touchdown to give the Wildcats a 14-10 lead with 7:44 left in the second quarter. Leary and Key connected on a 58-yard catch and run on the previous play to set up the score. 

— Following Clemson’s opening field goal, Kentucky gained the lead with five minutes left in the first quarter after wide receiver Barion Brown ran for a 22-yard score. Brown’s touchdown was set up by a 43-yard run by running back Ray Davis. 

— Clemson’s defense held up for the majority of plays in the first half, but big plays are what have cost the Tigers thus far. Key’s 58-yard reception, Davis’ 43-yard run and Brown’s 22-yard score and 27-yard reception combined for 150 of the Wildcats’ 183 total yards in the first half. 

— Clemson rolled out two true freshmen, Avieon Terrell and Shelton Lewis, as the starting cornerbacks. Lewis allowed a big 27-yard catch on third down late in the second quarter. He was also called for defensive pass interference on a third down play on Kentucky’s second scoring drive. 

— Kobe McCloud started at linebacker in place of Jeremiah Trotter Jr., who declared for the 2024 NFL draft and is not playing in the bowl game. McCloud has one total tackle, and one quarterback hurry through two quarters.

Special teams

— Jonathan Weitz seems to be performing as well as he did during Clemson’s visit to Columbia on Nov. 25. So far, he’s one-for-one on field goal and extra point attempts; his first kick was a 39-yard field goal to give the Tigers a 3-0 lead with 11:16 remaining in the first quarter. He had no trouble putting the ball between the uprights after Clemson’s first touchdown.

— Will Shipley returned Kentucky’s first kickoff for 34 yards to set up the Tigers on their own 39-yard line. After two touchbacks and three fair catches, Hamp Greene recorded a punt return for 4 yards with 1:25 left in the half.

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About the Contributors
Grace O'Donnell
Grace O'Donnell, Sports Editor
Justin Robertson
Justin Robertson, Associate Editor
Kelly Kaelblein
Kelly Kaelblein, Asst. Sports Editor
Toby Corriston, Asst. Photo Editor
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