There will be those who discredit the significance of Clemson’s triumph Sunday night because, under normal conditions, it was a matchup the team should win.
But given the circumstances, which could have led to the Tigers mailing in their Music City Bowl performance — as they did three years earlier — the 21-13 victory against Kentucky stands as a feather in coach Dabo Swinney’s cap.
Clemson (9-5) fended off the anticipated malaise of its late two-game slide to put a positive stamp on Swinney’s first season, snapping the program’s three-game bowl skid to send its senior class out in style.
“I just wanted to see what it felt like (to win a bowl game),” senior running back C.J. Spiller said. “After winning a championship — and that’s what this was — it’s a great feeling.”
He and his supporting cast gave that appearance in the final minute despite the cold, blustery weather, dancing and parading in front of a partisan Kentucky crowd of 57,280 at LP Field.
Spiller, the game MVP, rushed for 67 yards, had 58 receiving yards and registered the touchdown run that gave the Tigers their final cushion.
Yet the outcome was decided as much by the spark provided by his backup, Jamie Harper, who tallied a game-high 79 rushing yards, and a defensive stop.
Swinney viewed the victory as validation that this team had made progress because it had improved in three areas: team, tempo and toughness, all evident in its effort Sunday.
“We have been through a lot this year, and this is a great way to finish a good year,” Swinney said. “It’s good to create some momentum going into the offseason.
“We hadn’t won a bowl game since Moby Dick was a minnow.”
The drought started when a questionable effort and game plan led to a 28-20 loss to Kentucky in the 2006 Music City Bowl.
Clemson faced the threat of a similar showing after ending the season by getting clubbed at rival USC and losing to Georgia Tech in the ACC championship with an Orange Bowl trip on the line.
But the Tigers gave themselves a little room for error against the Wildcats (7-6) when, up 14-13 early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Kavell Conner forced a fumble on a short reception, which defensive tackle Jarvis Jenkins recovered at the Kentucky 19.
Three plays later, Spiller bounced outside and turned the corner for an 8-yard touchdown run with 10:14 remaining, putting the Tigers ahead 21-13.
Kentucky drove inside the Clemson 35, prolonging the possession on a 9-yard fake punt run to the 34 on fourth-and-3.
But after appearing on the verge of yielding a debilitating fourth-quarter drive for the second consecutive contest, the Tigers came up with a decisive stop.
On fourth-and-8 from the 33, Wildcats quarterback Morgan Newton scrambled to his left, undoubtedly frightening Clemson faithful who had watched quarterbacks carve the defense throughout the season on runs.
But after Newton eluded one defender in the backfield, senior defensive end Ricky Sapp dragged Newton down with one arm a half-yard short of the first down, giving Clemson possession for good with 5:27 left.
“To have to go through a coaching change, that’s something that’s hard to deal with,” Sapp said. “But we all bought into what coach Swinney wanted us to do, and that’s to go to the next game, the next play. To win this game feels pretty good.”
Spiller and Harper drained the clock with a series of long runs, spawning the sideline celebration.
Spiller’s touchdown extended his season-long streak of scoring in every game, set the school’s career mark (51) and tied him with former UNC back Don McCauley for the ACC’s single-season record (21). Spiller also became the first ACC player to surpass 1,000 career rushing yards and 500 receiving.
Swinney told the team in the locker room that the senior class — headlined by Spiller, Sapp, receiver Jacoby Ford, tight end Michael Palmer and guard Thomas Austin — might have changed Clemson forever for the standard it set in handling adversity.
An hour afterward, Spiller was still reluctant to remove his jersey and shoulder pads for the final time as a collegian, wearing them underneath a white T-shirt trumpeting the Tigers’ victory.
“This season, either way (win or lose), would have been good,” Spiller said. “But as a senior, you always want to win your last game. And to do it with a coach everyone said was too young to get it done, we’re very happy.”
SCORING PLAY: Chris Matthews 17 pass from Morgan Newton (Lones Sieber kick)
DRIVE: 7 plays, 61 yards in 3:04.
KEY PLAY: After Clemson opens with a three-and-out, the Wildcats march easily. The touchdown pass is the only third-down play in the drive.
KENTUCKY 7, CLEMSON 0
SCORING PLAY: Jacoby Ford 32 pass from Kyle Parker (Richard Jackson kick)
DRIVE: 4 plays, 90 yards in 1:59.
KEY PLAY: C.J. Spiller takes a swing pass and runs for a 42-yard gain into Kentucky territory. He fumbles, but the ball goes out of bounds.
KENTUCKY 7, CLEMSON 7
SCORING PLAY: Sieber 39-yard field goal.
DRIVE: 12 plays, 51 yards in 7:47.
KEY PLAY: A pass-interference call on third-and-4 moves the ball into Clemson territory.
KENTUCKY 10, CLEMSON 7
SCORING PLAY: Jamie Harper 1 run (Jackson kick)
DRIVE: 5 plays, 62 yards in 2:10.
KEY PLAY: Harper rumbles 33 yards to move the ball to the Kentucky 3.
CLEMSON 14, KENTUCKY 10
SCORING PLAY: Sieber 44-yard field goal.
DRIVE: 10 plays, 49 yards in 4:47.
KEY PLAY: Derrick Locke's 18-yard run on the second play is the only play longer than 8 yards.
CLEMSON 14, KENTUCKY 13
SCORING PLAY: C.J. Spiller 8-yard run (Jackson kick).
DRIVE: 3 plays, 19 yards In 1:19.
KEY PLAY: Kavell Conner's hit forces a fumble that lineman Jarvis Jenkins recovers at Kentucky's 19.
CLEMSON 21, KENTUCKY 13
Game statistics (Click to enlarge)