With the win, the Tigers improved to 9-5 while the Wildcats fell to 7-6.
“I think maybe Oregon has only won more games for a first-year staff--new coordinator, new head coach, new d-coordinator, a new staff coming together,” said head coach Dabo Swinney afterwards.
“I can’t say enough about our team in what they accomplished with nine wins, winning the Atlantic Division and finishing the bowl game like they did.”
What started as a slow night for the game’s MVP C.J. Spiller, ended with a late-fourth quarter bang.
He carried 15 times for 67 yards and a touchdown with most of those yards coming on three fourth quarter carries. The most important was an 8-yard touchdown run to the right with 10:13 to play.
“My offensive line came to me before that last drive and said, ‘Let’s go. It’s that time.’ Whenever you have your offensive line come to you and tell you that, you know you’ve got to gear it up,” he said.
The win snaps a three-game bowl losing streak for Clemson that dates back to the 2005 Champs Sports Bowl.
“I’m kind of speechless right now. I’m very happy that we won the game. I haven’t won a bowl game since we’ve been here,” Spiller said.
One of the biggest plays of the game came in the fourth quarter when the Tigers needed it most - Kavell Conner stripped Kentucky wide receiver Gene McCaskill with 11:33 to play, setting up Spiller’s touchdown run to put Clemson ahead by eight.
“They were running an in-route with one receiver. The corner gave me alert. I just played my technique and forced the strip to make a big play for the team,” Conner said.
Clemson’s defense limited the Kentucky “WildCobb” without a pair of its interior tackles and starting middle linebacker. The Tigers were able to hold the Wildcats to just 167 yards rushing on 42 carries. Randall Cobb rushed for 36 yards, primarily from the wildcat formation. Running back Derrick Locke carried 18 times for 64 yards.
After three plays on the game’s opening drive, Clemson punted, setting up Morgan Newton’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Chris Matthews. Kentucky needed just six plays to score on the 61-yard drive that took 3:04 off the clock.
After that Clemson's defense took over as the only other Wildcat scores were of a pair of field goals Lones Seiber (39, 44).
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele believes the defense “recaptured what it had” for the first 11 games of the season.
“They’re not going to play perfect. The other team has players too, and they’re pretty good,” he said. “They’re going to make plays. People think, if they make a first down, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ I hate to tell you, Kentucky is pretty good…the biggest thing is to keep them out of the end zone.”
Clemson's strong defensive performance came without Brandon Maye manning the middle of the linebacker corps. He played only a few snaps in the first half before missing the entire second half because of a knee injury that he suffered during practice earlier in the week. His absence forced Corico Hawkins and Jeremy Campbell onto the field.
“We decided to go ahead and start the young guy (Hawkins), so he can be in the groove and not be cold,” Steele said. “Then, we’ll put Brandon in to see what he can do. It didn’t feel right, but Corico did a nice job. He played most of the regular snaps and some of the nickel snaps later on. Jeremy Campbell--the senior goes out there and plays as many snaps today as he did in his career.”
Jacoby Ford scored on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Kyle Parker, giving its first touchdown with 16 seconds to play in the first quarter.
Jamie Harper carried the load on Clemson’s second touchdown drive, rushing four times for 62 yards. The five-play drive ended on a one-yard scoring run, giving the Tigers a 14-10 advantage. Harper’s first carry went for 26 yards and the next for 33.
He finished with 79 yards on eight rushes.
“It’s great to see him have that kind of game on this stage at the end of the year, because, obviously, we’re losing a pretty good running back,” Swinney said. “If you’re a Clemson fan, it’s pretty easy to get excited about 23 and No. 8.”
No. 23, Andre Ellington, finished with four carries for 20 yards. He and Harper, along with Roderick McDowell, who spent this season as a redshirt, will pick up the slack that’s going to be left behind by Spiller.
On a late third quarter reception from Parker, Spiller became the first player in ACC history to have at least 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards. His touchdown run makes him the only player in Clemson history to score a touchdown in 14 consecutive games. Spiller is also the only player to score a touchdown in every game this season.
He played a large role in helping the Tigers to accomplish three of the five goals that were set before the beginning of the season.
“We battled and competed in every game. Everybody knows that if you just get a break here or there, you could have 11 wins,” Swinney said. “To have that special year where you win 11 or 12, you can’t get the holding call or (you have to) make that one more play or that one more stop at the end of the game. That’s the difference.”
As one season closes, the start of the next one is just around the corner. Let the 2010 debate begin.