C.J. Spiller’s name was next to Clemson records and milestones. This season, he was named the ACC Player of the Year and established himself as one of the nation’s best all-around athletes. But one thing eluded him — a bowl victory.
He can check that off the list now.
The senior running back had 172 all-purpose yards and scored a big insurance touchdown late to propel Clemson to a 21-13 victory over Kentucky in the 12th annual Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl Sunday night at LP Field.
The win snapped a three-game bowl losing streak for the Tigers (9-5), whose last bowl win came in 2005 against Colorado in the Champ Sports Bowl.
“I’m kind of speechless right now,” Spiller said after the game. “I just wanted to see what it felt like to be in the locker room after winning a championship game. That’s really what it was — a championship game and it’s a great feeling.”
On the other side for Kentucky (7-6), head coach Rick Brooks was obviously disappointed — especially considering that might have been his last game at Kentucky and as a head coach. Brooks, who has more than 45 years of coaching experience, said afterwards that he told his team “that 80 percent I’m probably not coming back.” He said he would decided in the next four, five days and as late as a week.
“I think it may be time for a change and time for (assistant coach) Joker (Phillips) to take it over,” said the 68-year-old Brooks, who finished his seventh season at Kentucky. “I’m not totally sure but I just feel like maybe it’s time.”
The Wildcats’ chance to possibly send Brooks out with the school’s fourth straight bowl victory was snuffed early in the fourth quarter. With Clemson up 14-13 and 11:31 remaining, Kentucky wide receiver Gene McCaskill was stripped by Kavell Conner for the game’s first turnover. Jarvis Jenkins recovered the fumble and three plays later Spiller scored from eight yards out for a 21-13 Tigers’ advantage.
It was Spiller’s 51st career touchdown, which set the Clemson career record, and came with 10:14 left in the game.
Kentucky, which twice led in the first half but trailed 14-10 at halftime, responded with a long fourth-quarter drive that took more than five minutes off the clock.
With more than six minutes remaining, punter Ryan Tydlacka rushed nine yards on a fake punt on a fourth and three to put the Wildcats on Clemson’s 34. Three players later, however, Kentucky faced a fourth and nine with 5:38 to go. Quarterback Morgan Newton scrambled long enough to find daylight and rushed towards the first-down marker. Defensive end Ricky Sapp, however, tracked Newton down and he fell one yard short of the first down.
“I think he showed his speed,” Spiller said of Sapp. “That was huge for us.”
Clemson had the ball the last 5:27, thanks in large part to Spiller rushing for two big first downs and 39 yards on the drive.
Spiller was named the game’s MVP and finished with 67 rushing yards on 15 carries, added three catches for 58 yards and returned two kicks for 47 yards. It was also his 14th straight game with a touchdown, another Clemson record, and he was the only player in the FBS to score in every game this season.
“He got it done,” said Clemson’s first-year coach Dabo Swinney said. “We felt like we could run the football and that was our plan coming in.”
• Kentucky won the time-of-possession battle, having the ball for nearly 35 minutes. Clemson actually had the ball for just 9:45 in the first half. But after the Wildcats scored on their opening drive on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Chris Matthews, they could muster just two field goals the rest of the game.
“We couldn’t finish the drives,” Brooks said. “We squandered opportunities to get points.”
• It was announced Saturday that Franklin American Mortgage Company would be the title sponsor of Music City Bowl starting in 2010 through 2013. Gaylord Hotels had been a sponsor of the bowl for its first 12 years.