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Kentucky football falls short 38-35 in chaotic final quarter of Gator Bowl against Clemson

Samuel Colmar
Kentucky tight end Jordan Dingle (85) runs with the ball during the Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 33-27. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

Kentucky football came up short against No. 22 Clemson 38-35 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on Dec. 29.

“I really liked this team,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said. “I liked coaching. I wished we could have had a different outcome here. We had an opportunity to finish really strong and get two (wins) over two ranked teams.”

The Wildcats and Tigers both ended their respective regular seasons on a high note – Clemson with four straight wins including two over ranked opponents and Kentucky with a powerful upset over then No. 10 Louisville.

Kentucky was on the fortunate side of roster participation for the bowl game this year with nine out of its 11 starters taking the field in Jacksonville. The two absent players, Kenneth Horsey and Jeremy Flax, were out for injuries.

On the flip side, Clemson’s defense looked significantly different in the absence of multiple starters including projected first round draft picks Nate Wiggins (corner) and Jerimiah Trotter Jr. (linebacker).

Despite that, the lack of starters did not waver the Tigers, who held Kentucky to an unsuccessful first drive of the game.

Kentucky’s defense talked back on Clemson’s second drive with crucial blocks from Zion Childress and Andru Phillips to force the Tigers to punt.

For its second go around, the Cats leaned on their running plays to successfully take them to the endzone. A 43-yard rush by Ray Davis set up Barion Brown to run the last 22 yards to complete the touchdown.

Hungry for a touchdown of their own, the Tigers picked things back up in the second quarter, finding the endzone in five plays to jump ahead of the Wildcats 10-7.

Enter Dane Key to take back the lead over Clemson, finding the endzone after a 58-yard and 5-yard pass from Devin Leary.

Ending the half 14-10, Kentucky’s defense held 40 tackles over Clemson while the Tigers had just half that number.

Taking the field for the second half, Kentucky could not have wished for a better start than Brown running the ball down the field for his third kickoff return touchdown of the season (Ball State on Sept. 2 and Louisville on Nov. 25).

Now with four kickoff return touchdowns in his career, the sophomore set a new record for UK.

Kentucky wide receiver Barion Brown (7) runs out the tunnel before the Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky lost 33-27. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff (Samuel Colmar)

Although it seemed the Wildcats owned all of the momentum on the field, an unpredictable sequence in the fourth quarter would make it anyone’s game.

Here’s how the first eight minutes went – Clemson touchdown, Kentucky fumble turnover, Kentucky interception, Clemson interception, Clemson fumble and finally, to wrap up part one of the chaos, a Clemson field goal.

As the Tigers threatened to close the gap between themselves and the Wildcats, Kentucky looked to its next drive to take back the momentum, but Clemson was not ready to let go of it.

A fumble by Childress found the hands of the Tigers who returned it to the endzone on their next play, courtesy of running back Phil Mafah.

With Clemson in the lead 27-21, it was Brown who got it right back after a 60-yard pass allowed him to fall into the endzone.

Now 28-27, the Tigers did not back down. In just two minutes, Clemson stormed down the field to complete an impressive 52-yard field goal attempt.

On the next drive for Kentucky, it was Jordan Dingle’s turn to take the spotlight as he caught Leary’s 72-yard pass and easily set up Ray Davis to finish the 1-yard drive for a touchdown – his last as a Wildcat.

“I’m proud to have come to Kentucky,” he said. “I’m proud to represent this program and institution to the best of my ability. I hope that someday when I come back, people will know that I left it all on the line.”

But the roller-coaster of a quarter was not done quite yet.

In the final moments of the game, the Tigers hurried the ball down the field make the final touchdown of the Gator Bowl with 21 seconds left to play.

Kentucky, with time not on its side, fell short 38-35 against Clemson.

It was the last game for a handful of Wildcats, including Leary, who threw 306 yards.

“I told all the guys in the locker room who are playing for the last time that we love them and appreciate them and everything they’ve done for our program,” Stoops said.

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About the Contributors
Samantha Money, Assistant Sports Editor
Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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