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Paws up, paws down: Clemson outlasts Kentucky in Gator Bowl

Clemson+linebacker+Barrett+Carter%2C+defensive+tackle+Tyler+Davis+and+safety+Jalyn+Phillips+pose+with+the+Gator+Bowl+trophy+after+defeating+Kentucky+38-35+in+Jacksonville%2C+Florida%2C+on+Dec.+29%2C+2023.
Ashleigh Snyder
Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter, defensive tackle Tyler Davis and safety Jalyn Phillips pose with the Gator Bowl trophy after defeating Kentucky 38-35 in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 29, 2023.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The 77th annual TaxSlayer Gator Bowl ended in a 38-35 victory for the No. 22 Clemson Tigers against the Kentucky Wildcats. Below are a few of our thoughts on the roller coaster of a game: 

Paws up: Turnovers (or lack thereof)

If the Tigers’ 2023 season was defined by anything, it was turnovers, as Clemson finished the year 7-0 when it won the turnover margin and 2-4 when it didn’t.

In its season opener against Duke, Clemson fumbled and lost the ball twice, and quarterback Cade Klubnik threw one interception. To close their year out against Kentucky, the Tigers only had one interception and won the turnover battle. Garrett Riley’s offense, although not necessarily explosive in its production, was clean on the field.

Conversely, the defense was on top of its game in regard to takeaways — especially in the fourth quarter. In the final 15 minutes of the game, defensive end Xavier Thomas forced a fumble which was recovered by Justin Mascoll. Minutes later, linebacker Barrett Carter tipped and caught the ball for an interception, which was quickly followed by a deflected pass from Khalil Barnes, which was again recovered by Carter.

Finally, with just nine seconds left to play, freshman cornerback Shelton Lewis intercepted Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary on the final drive of the game to seal the deal for Clemson.

Paws down: Defensive struggles without Trotter and Wiggins

The Tigers seemed to feel the absence of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and cornerback Nate Wiggins.

The impact of missing the future NFL draftees was often felt on explosive run and pass plays, which predominantly allowed Kentucky to score as much as it did.

The Tigers’ young secondary will need to mature in its play-reading ability and quick response adjustments, as it allowed several plays greater than 50 yards, including a 72-yard pass play that set the Wildcats up to score.

Paws up: Jake Briningstool and Phil Mafah

When Clemson’s defense faltered, tight end Jake Briningstool and running back Phil Mafah jolted life back into the offense. Briningstool recorded a team-high nine receptions for 91 yards, while Mafah led the team in rushing yards with 71 and had four touchdowns in the contest.

However, this isn’t the first time the duo has shone this season. In fact, prior to Friday’s contest, Briningstool recorded 41 receptions for 407 yards and five touchdowns, compared to his 25 receptions for 285 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Similarly, in 2022, Mafah had just four total touchdowns — the same amount as he had just today — and 98 carries for 515 yards. He demonstrated obvious growth this season, as he had 168 carries for 894 yards and nine touchdowns and proved himself to be an essential part of Clemson’s offense. To commemorate his performance — 11 carries, 71 yards and four touchdowns — Mafah was deemed the Gator Bowl MVP after Clemson’s 38-35 win.

Paws down: Offensive line

If there was one glaring issue with Clemson’s performance on Friday, it was the offensive line. Klubnik was sacked eight times by Kentucky’s defense after being sacked just 20 times in the regular season. Clemson’s defense recorded just two sacks in the contest.

With 13:51 left to play, Klubnik was taken down while attempting a pass after Clemson gained possession off a turnover from the Wildcats. Not only did the tackle leave him hobbling off the field, but it also resulted in Kentucky’s lone interception.

Luckily, Klubnik returned for Clemson’s next offensive drive, but he was sacked twice more before the game’s conclusion.

Paws up: Doink, and it’s in!

Graduate kicker Jonathan Weitz had himself a day against Kentucky. He went 3 for 3 on field goals, sending the ball through the posts from 28 yards, 39 and a career-long of 52 yards.

On his final kick of the game, and ultimately his career, Weitz set up with placeholder Clay Swinney at the 52-yard line. The kick sailed low, hit the crossbar and sailed through to put the Tigers up 30-28.

 

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About the Contributors
Grace O'Donnell, Sports Editor
Kelly Kaelblein, Asst. Sports Editor
Toby Corriston, Asst. Photo Editor
Ashleigh Snyder, Photo Editor
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