Kentucky Falls to No. 22 Clemson in Gator Bowl

Kentucky Falls to No. 22 Clemson in Gator Bowl

Kentucky sophomore Barion Brown scored three touchdowns but No. 22 Clemson rallied in the fourth quarter to win the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl 38-35 on Friday in Jacksonville.

Brown scored on a kick return, a reception and a rush in the game. He accounted for 226 all-purpose yards in the game.

Kentucky (7-6) got 306 passing yards from quarterback Devin Leary. The senior connected on 16 of 28 through the air and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. Running back Ray Davis carried 13 times for 63 yards and a score for the Cats.

Playing in his final game at UK, linebacker Trevin Wallace led the Cats with 11 tackles. Zion Childress and D’Eryk Jackson each had eight stops for UK.

Clemson got the first possession of the game and the Tigers quickly got into UK territory. But the Kentucky defense got a stop and forced the Tigers into a field goal. Jonathan Weitz converted the 39-yard attempt and Clemson led 3-0 with 11:16 left in the first quarter.

Kentucky would get one first down on its first possession, on a completion from Leary to Barion Brown. However, as the Cats approached midfield, the drive stalled and UK was forced to punt. Clemson took over at its own 15 yard line.

The Tigers were not able to do much with the next possession and Clemson punted the ball back to the Cats, who took over at their own 27.

Kentucky needed just four plays, two of them of the explosive variety, to get on the board. On third and two, Davis busted through the line and scampered 43 yards to the Clemson 22. On the next play, Brown took a handoff around the left end and raced to the end zone for a touchdown. Alex Raynor added the PAT and the Cats led 7-3 with 5:00 left in the first.

The teams would exchange punts near the end of the first quarter, which would end with UK leading 7-3.

Early in the second quarter, Clemson punted it back to the Cats, who took over at their own 12. Kentucky went three and out and punted the ball back to the Tigers.

Clemson took the ensuing possession into UK territory and the Tigers would convert. Phil Mafah scored on a one-yard touchdown run, giving the Tigers the lead. Weitz added the point after and Clemson grabbed a 10-7 lead with 10:17 left in the first half.

Kentucky had an answer. After a slow start to the drive, Leary connected with Dane Key over the middle. Key raced inside the Clemson 10, a gain of 58 yards. On the next play, Leary found Key in the back of the end zone for a five-yard touchdown. Raynor added the extra point and UK took a 14-10 lead with 7:44 left in the half.

Clemson made one first down on its next drive before being forced to punt again. Kentucky would take over at its own 18 with 4:13 to play in the half.

Kentucky appeared to be stopped on its next drive until Leary found Brown for a 27-yard gain on third and eight. But a sack would extinguish the drive and UK punted it back to Clemson with 1:25 left in the half. The Tigers punted just before the half, which ended with a 14-10 Kentucky lead.

The second half started with a bang. Brown took the Clemson kickoff about three yards deep in the end zone. Brown cut left, then turned on the jets up the left sideline, taking the kick back for a touchdown. Raynor added the PAT and the Cats led 21-10 just 13 seconds into the second half.

It was the third time this season that Brown has returned a kick for a score, and the fourth time in his career, setting a Kentucky career record.

Clemson would take its first drive of the second half into UK territory before a Deone Walker sack forced the Tigers into a punt.

Kentucky would get a couple of first downs on its next drive before a penalty set the Cats back. UK would be forced to punt and Clemson took over at its own 30.

Clemson would drive into UK territory again and were on the doorstep of the Kentucky end zone as the third quarter ended with the Cats holding a 21-10 advantage.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Mafah scored on a one-yard touchdown run. The Tigers went for two but UK’s Jordan Lovett broke up the pass and the try was no good and the score remained 21-16 UK with 14:56 to play.

Kentucky would commit the game’s first turnover on the next drive. On third down, Leary was under pressure, was hit and fumbled. Clemson’s Justin Mascoll recovered at the Tigers were in business at the UK 25 yard line.

However, Clemson returned the favor on the very next play. Quarterback Cade Klubnik was attempting to pass when he was hit by UK’s Alex Afari. The ball floated into the end zone where Lovett intercepted it, giving the Cats the ball back with 13:51 to play.

Kentucky got a first down on its next possession but on third and four from its own 38, Leary was intercepted by Barrett Carter and Clemson took over at the UK 37 with 10:08 to play.

The Tigers would get inside the UK 10 yard line, but the UK defense stood tall yet again, stoning the Clemson drive. Weitz would make a 28-yard field goal, cutting the UK lead to 21-19 with 7:00 to play.

On the first play of the ensuing drive, Brown took the ball on a reverse and fumbled. Carter recovered and the Tigers took over at the UK 29.

The Tigers scored on the next play when Mafah scampered 29 yards for the touchdown. Clemson converted the two-point conversion and the Tigers led 27-21 with 6:45 to play.

Kentucky responded very quickly. On the third play of the next drive, Leary hit Brown for a 60-yard touchdown. Raynor made the point after and UK led 28-27 with 6:12 to play.

The ping pong match continued when Clemson’s Will Shipley took the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to the UK 37 yard line. But the UK defense stuffed the Tigers and forced a 52-yard field goal from Weitz. The kick hit the crossbar and tumbled over, giving Clemson a 30-28 lead with 4:20 left.

On the first play of the next drive, Leary connected with Jordan Dingle who was wide open and went down the right sideline for 72 yards to the Clemson three. Two plays later, Davis went around right end for the touchdown. Raynor added the PAT and Kentucky led 35-30 with 2:39 left.

Clemson would answer again, and it was Mafah once again, scoring from three yards out. The Tigers added another two-point conversion and led 38-35 with 17 seconds remaining.

Kentucky got one more shot but Leary was picked off by Clemson’s Shelton Lewis to seal the game.

Kentucky opens its 2024 season on Aug. 31 against Southern Miss at Kroger Field.

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