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Cat fight in Jacksonville - storylines to watch in Gator Bowl matchup

UK Athletics

Kentucky closes its 2023 season on Friday, facing No. 22 Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville (ESPN, Noon ET).

From UK Athletics:

The Cats finished the regular season with a 38-31 upset over No. 9 Louisville at the Derby City. In that win, the fifth in a row for the Cats over the Cards, UK quarterback Devin Leary passed for three touchdowns and running back Ray Davis scored three times. UK got another touchdown when Barion Brown returned a kickoff 100 yards to the house.

Now, Kentucky faces Clemson, which finished 8-4 in the regular season. The Tigers, who won national championships in 2016 and 2018, are led by quarterback Cade Klubnik and running backs Phil Mafah and Will Shipley.

Clemson and Kentucky have met 13 times with Kentucky winning eight of those contests. The most recent game between the teams came in 2009 when the Tigers beat the Cats 21-13 in the Music City Bowl in Nashville.


Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary waited six years to finally play in a bowl game.

Leary spent the last five seasons at North Carolina State — he's faced Clemson plenty — and even made two trips to the Gator Bowl. But he didn't play in either, the first because he was redshirting and the second because he was injured. He missed out on two more bowl games, one because of an injury and another because it was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols. Now at Kentucky for his final season, he'll get to experience a bowl for the first time.

“One last ride with everyone. Let's make it a special one," he said.


Both teams expect to have former players and current NFL starters on their sideline Friday.

Kentucky hosted Jaguars pass rusher Josh Allen and center Luke Fortner at Gator Bowl practice Tuesday and will welcome them at the game. Clemson will counter with three current Jaguars: quarterback Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and offensive lineman Tyler Shatley.

Cat Scratches: Kentucky Defense Readying for Balanced Clemson Offense

Playing defense against a team that does multiple things well can be difficult. That’s the task that the Kentucky defense will have when facing No. 22 Clemson in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 29 in Jacksonville.

The Tigers are the definition of balance. They rush for 180 yards per game and pass for 225 yards per contest. They have run the ball 485 times this year and have thrown the ball 433 times.

Clemson has impressed Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White.

“It’s an offense that understands what they want to do. They have really talented running backs. It’s a really good offense. The two running backs are really, really talented players. Their ability to get downhill, their ability in the passing game. The (offensive) linemen work together well. Then they spread the ball out more horizontally, but when they need to, they can push it vertical.”

The two running backs that White spoke about are juniors Phil Mafah and Will Shipley. Mafah has rushed for 894 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He has also caught 19 passes for 105 yards.

Shipley has carried the ball 156 times for 798 yards and five touchdowns. He has caught 29 passes for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But the offense starts with quarterback Cade Klubnik. He has passed for 2,580 yards and 19 touchdowns and has rushed 110 times for 194 yards and four more scores. White has been impressed with Klubnik’s play.

“The quarterback makes a lot of plays happen with his legs as well,” White said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for how athletic he is. You seem him pull away from some guys when he’s scrambling. We’ve got to understand pocket control.”

White has also seen Klubnik make plays on third down, something that UK’s defense has seen from other opponents this season.

“He does a good job on third down extending plays,” White said. “We’ve got to do a good job with that. We’ve played some quarterbacks who have made some plays on third down. We’ve got to glean from that and get off (the field).”

White hopes that UK will continue to have the proper mindset heading into the Gator Bowl.

“The mindset will always be here that we’re going to step on the field with the mindset of defending every blade of grass on that field,” White said. “No point is acceptable. Now, are they going to score at times during a season? Absolutely. But it’s never the goal to say that the offense will pick us up. If we could go in there and win by several touchdowns, that would be the goal. We’re fully aware that this is going to be a battle from start to finish so they better be prepared.”

That preparation begins with a plan to defend Clemson’s balanced offense.

Kentucky-Clemson Series

• Kentucky leads the all-time meetings with Clemson, 8-5, in a series that began in 1925

.• The Wildcats trail Clemson in bowl games, 2-1, which include matchups at the 1993 Peach Bowl, 2006 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl and 2009 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl

.• The two teams have gone back and forth over the last five meetings, with no team winning two-or-more since Clemson won two straight in 1981 and 1982.

• In their most recent matchup, the Tigers defeated the Wildcats, 21-13, in the 2009 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl.

• The matchup before that, the Wildcats defeated the Tigers, 28-20, in the 2006 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl

.• Kentucky’s biggest win was a 44-6 triumph (+38) in 1929, while Clemson’s biggest wins were a 21-3 victory (+18) in 1981 and a 24-6 (+18) victory in 1982.

• UK current quarterback and former NC State quarterback, Devin Leary, is 1-2 against Clemson, earning a win in 2021 and taking losses in 2019 and 2020.

Kentucky-Clemson Connections

• Kentucky has no players from Clemson on its roster.

• Kentucky has two players from South Carolina — kicker Chance Poore (Anderson) and defensive back Andru Phillips (Mauldin)

.• Clemson has one player from the state of Kentucky on its roster in senior offensive lineman Walker Parks (Lexington, Kentucky; Frederick Douglass High School)

.• Played and started in two games for Clemson in 2023 (limited to injury), while he has played 39 career games with 28 career starts.