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Mafah, Clemson defeat Kentucky to win Gator Bowl in late-game thriller

Toby Corriston
Clemson running back Phil Mafah scored four touchdowns against Kentucky in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 29, 2023.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Trailing by 11 points entering the fourth quarter, it looked like Clemson was about to lose to Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Friday. That was until the Tigers stormed back, scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter to come away with the 38-35 victory in a late-game thriller at EverBank Stadium. 

Down by five with 2:34 left in the game, Clemson’s offense went 65 yards down the field to get down to Kentucky’s three-yard line. At that point, running back Phil Mafah punched in his fourth touchdown of the day on a 3-yard rush with 17 seconds left in the game to take a one-point lead. Quarterback Cade Klubnik proceeded to connect with Adam Randall for a successful two-point conversion to take a 38-35 lead.

On the game-winning drive, Klubnik was a perfect 8 for 8 passing for 71 yards, connecting with five different receivers for several big gains. 

“To see the offense go win it in that way, that right there, will be huge for the development of our guys,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game.

In need of a miracle, Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary heaved a pass up down the middle of the field into the hands of Clemson cornerback Shelton Lewis, who intercepted Leary for a game-sealing takeaway. 

Clemson’s game-winning drive marked the fourth lead change in the fourth quarter between the Tigers and the Wildcats, as both teams combined for 42 points in the final 15 minutes. 

“I feel like that was the craziest fourth quarter I’ve ever played in,” Mafah said after the game.

Plays like Lewis’ interception were the driving force behind Clemson’s comeback. The Tigers had four total takeaways in the fourth quarter, resulting in 11 points. Barrett Carter was responsible for two of those takeaways, finishing with three total tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery and three pass breakups. 

“It was a four-quarter game, to say the least,” Carter said. “Guys fought for the whole game. Just super proud of us and super proud of how each segment was able to feed off of each other.”

Another one of the team’s takeaways came at the hands of safety Khalil Barnes, who forced a fumble with just under seven minutes left in the fourth to give possession back to the Tigers.

Barnes’ forced fumble allowed Mafah to score his third touchdown of the day on the ensuing play — a 29-yard rush down the right side of the field. That score gave Clemson the lead back for the first time since the first quarter.

Clemson’s lead didn’t last long, however, as Leary connected with wide receiver Barion Brown for a wide-open 60-yard score to take a one-point lead. 

In need of another score, Will Shipley returned Kentucky’s ensuing kickoff 60 yards to give the Tigers the ball past the 50. Unfortunately for Shipley, he went down on the return and had to be carted off the field with a knee injury. 

Shipley’s late-game heroics weren’t for nothing, as Clemson kicker Jonathan Weitz was able to kick a 52-yard field goal off the crossbar four plays later to return the lead to the Tigers. Weitz converted on all three of his field goal attempts and his one extra point attempt. 

“I don’t know what to say about (Wietz),” Swinney said. “Guy went 6 for 6 to finish this thing up, including a 52-yarder that he kicked 52 and one inch. It was amazing. What a way for that guy to finish up his career.”

Despite Clemson’s best efforts to keep Kentucky from retaking the lead, the Wildcats scored a touchdown on a three-play, 75-yard drive to obtain the 35-30 lead. 

Nonetheless, Mafah had other plans and ran in the game-winning score, capping off the Tigers’ 68-yard drive. 

Up until the fourth quarter, Kentucky had Clemson’s number. After entering halftime up 14-10, the Wildcats returned the second-half opening kickoff 102 yards to take the 21-10 lead.

But when it mattered most, Mafah always seemed to come up big, as he ran for a team-high 71 yards on 11 carries and scored a Gator Bowl-record four rushing touchdowns, three of which came in the fourth quarter. His performance earned him the Gator Bowl’s Most Valuable Player award. 

Meanwhile, Klubnik completed 30 of 41 pass attempts for 264 yards. The sophomore signal-caller’s favorite target on the day was Jake Briningstool, who finished with nine receptions for 91 yards. Briningstool made several critical catches, including a 15-yard reception that set up Mafah’s game-winning score.

Friday’s victory marked the fifth straight win for the Tigers (9-4), who now head into the spring on a high note. 

“It’s special to finish the way that we did,” Swinney said.

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About the Contributors
Justin Robertson, Associate Editor
Toby Corriston, Asst. Photo Editor
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