The Tigers defeated Kentucky 21-13 in the 12th annual Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl before a crowd of 57,280 at chilly LP Field. Clemson ended a two-game losing streak to finish 9-5 in head coach Dabo Swinney’s first season. Kentucky, which had won its last three bowl games, finished 7-6.
"I'm really proud of this football team," Swinney said. "They had the opportunity to play in front of the whole country and I think they put on a good show."
Spiller capped his stellar career with 68 rushing yards, 57 rushing yards and his school-record 51st career touchdown – an eight-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. He was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player.
That touchdown was set up by Clemson’s defense, which forced the game’s lone turnover and held the Wildcats to 277 total yards. Kentucky held the ball for 34:26 and ran 69 plays – 22 more than the Tigers – but averaged just four yards per play. Clemson averaged 6.8 yards per play.
“We couldn’t finish the drives,” Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks said. “You have to give Clemson credit. They’ve got a good physical defensive front.”
The Tigers’ win was the first in four tries for the ACC against an SEC opponent in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. Clemson avenged a 28-20 loss to the Wildcats in the 2006 edition.
Spiller became the first ACC player to have 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in one season and found the end zone in his 14th consecutive game. Spiller also tied an ACC single-season record with his 21st touchdown.
"I'm kind of speechless right now," he said. "You always want to win your last game when you're a senior."
Spiller’s backfield mate Jamie Harper rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown, while freshman quarterback Kyle Parker completed 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a score. Fellow freshman Morgan Newton threw for 96 yards and a touchdown for the Wildcats.
Clemson led 14-13 at the outset the fourth quarter, when Kentucky took over 1st and 10 at the Tigers 49. But Clemson’s defense forced a three-and-out and then made the biggest play of the game on the first play of the Wildcats’ next possession.
Senior linebacker Kavell Conner stripped the ball from Wildcats wide receiver Gene McCaskill and nose guard Jarvis Jenkins recovered at the UK 19. Three plays later Spiller raced around the right side for an eight-yard touchdown – his 12th rushing score of the season.
“I can't say enough about our defense as far as how they played down the stretch," Swinney said.
Kentucky tried to answer on its next possession, crossing midfield before appearing to stall at the Clemson 43. But punter Ryan Tydlacka gained nine yards on a fake punt to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, after calling their final timeout, the Wildcats fell short on Newton’s 4th and 9 scramble. Clemson took over with just over five minutes left.
Spiller had runs of 16 and 15 yards to help the Tigers run the clock down from there.
Wildcats wide receiver Randall Cobb, who entered the game with 964 total yards, was held to 57 total yards. Kentucky managed just two Lones Seiber field goals (39, 44) after finding the end zone on its initial possession.
Kentucky’s defense forced a three-and-out on Clemson’s first series, giving the Wildcats good field position at their own 39-yard line. Newton went to work, sandwiching two completions around an 11-yard scamper by Cobb. Clemson aided Kentucky’s cause with a 15-yard facemask penalty on the second completion that pushed the ball to the Tigers 21.
Two plays later, Newton hit junior wide receiver Chris Matthews in the left corner of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats the early lead.
Clemson’s next drive stalled at midfield and Kentucky took over at its 10-yard line. Newton scrambled 24 yards to give the Wildcats some breathing room and another face mask penalty on the Tigers moved the ball to the UK 44. Kentucky crossed midfield but Conner sacked Newton for a seven-yard loss to force a punt.
Clemson shook off its cobwebs by finding Spiller, who took a screen pass from Parker and raced 42 yards up the right sideline to the UK 43. Two plays later Parker lofted a 32-yard scoring toss to senior wide receiver Jacoby Ford, capping a four-play, 90-yard drive and knotting the game at 7-7.
But penalties continued to plague the Tigers’ defense. Kentucky crossed midfield after a pass interference penalty and Clemson jumped offsides on 4th and 1 from its 31. The Wildcats couldn’t gain another first down but Seiber nailed a 39-yard field goal to give UK a 10-7 lead with 7:29 left in the first half.
Spiller returned the ensuing kickoff to the Tigers 38 and Harper, a sophomore from Jacksonville, took over the drive from there.
Harper raced 26 yards to the UK 36 and then streaked 33 yards on the next snap before getting tripped up at the three-yard line. Three plays later he plowed into the end zone from a yard out and Clemson took a lead it would never relinquish.