Mafah runs for 4 TDs, Clemson rallies to beat Kentucky in a wild Gator Bowl
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Clemson finished the Gator Bowl on Friday just like it did the season: with a flourish.
Phil Mafah ran for four touchdowns, including a 3-yarder with 17 seconds to play, and the Tigers rallied to beat Kentucky 38-35 in one of the wildest Gator Bowls to date and ended the year with a five-game winning streak.
Mafah scored three times in a back-and-forth final quarter that included five turnovers, four touchdowns and five lead changes. Clemson (9-4) outscored Kentucky 28-14 over the last 15 minutes.
“You saw who we are tonight,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Those guys, they finished.”
Cade Klubnik made the play of the game when he connected with Troy Stellato for 16 yards on third-and-18 to set up Mafah’s fourth-down run that moved the chains. Mafah scored three plays later to put the Tigers up for good.
Kentucky (7-6) had a final chance, but Devin Leary’s first-down pass was intercepted by Justin Mascoll.
“A very difficult loss. Terrific football game,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “We faced a lot of adversity and overcame it. Mistakes and turnovers, penalties, there was a lot of things that you’re not very proud of.”
Mafah finished with 71 yards on 11 carries. Klubnik completed 30 of 41 passes for 264 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. He completed 8 of 9 passes on the winning drive.
Clemson trailed 21-10 after Kentucky’s Barion Brown, who scored three touchdowns three different ways, returned the second-half kickoff 100 yards. The Wildcats looked like they would roll from there, but they turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions in the fourth.
Clemson took advantage and grabbed a 27-21 lead on Mafah’s third TD run.
Brown responded with a 60-yard TD catch that put UK back out front 28-27. It was short-lived because Will Shipley returned the ensuing kickoff 60 yards to set up Jonathan Weitz’s field goal — a 52-yarder that hit the crossbar and bounced over.
“He kicked it 52 yards and one inch,” Swinney said.
The Wildcats answered, though. Leary connected with Jordan Dingle for 72 yards on the next play, setting up Ray Davis’ 1-yard scoring run.
“I’m proud to have played that game,” said Davis, who played despite turning pro. “The rest of my life I’m going to be able to remember that and be able to know that I was part of a very historical game in a sense of just back and forth and ups and downs, highs and lows and knowing whenever adversity struck, we stepped up to the plate.”
Clemson rallied again in the end and ended up celebrating on the field afterward.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of that in a quarter before,” Swinney said. “It was special, and these guys know that.”
Shipley flipped head over heels out of bounds on his long return. He grabbed his knee and had to be helped to the bench and then carted to the locker room with a towel over his head. He finished what might have been his final game at Clemson with 132 all-purpose yards, including 94 on returns.
“Initial reports seem to be encouraging,” Swinney said. “But you never know until you get an MRI.”
Clemson fans didn’t have much to cheer about in the third quarter until former Tigers stars and current Jacksonville Jaguars standouts Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne walked onto the sideline.
Lawrence and Etienne got two of the loudest ovations from the Clemson side when they were shown on the video boards shaking hands with players and coaches during a timeout with 6:31 to play in the third. The duo led the Tigers to the 2018 national championship and two more appearances in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson: The Tigers played without star linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (88 tackles) and standout cornerback Nate Wiggins (nine pass breakups). Both opted out to start preparing for the NFL draft and were clearly missed as Kentucky delivered three plays longer than 40 yards.
Kentucky: Davis played well in a game he easily could have skipped. He had a 43-yard scamper in the first half that set up a touchdown and finished with 63 yards on the ground.
Clemson: The Tigers have plenty of youth to build around, beginning with Klubnik and receivers Tyler Brown and Antonio Williams.
Kentucky: The Wildcats have to replace Davis, who totaled 1,383 yards and 20 touchdowns this season.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football