Jeffery showed off some of that speed just in time Saturday with a 70-yard touchdown catch to help No. 17 South Carolina escape a Tennessee comeback and remain in control of the SEC East.
Jeffery caught a routine pass over the middle with the game tied at 24 all, moved toward the right sideline and outran several Vols defenders to for a critical TD in the Gamecocks 38-24 victory.
“I try to work on that all the time,” said Jeffery, smiling. The lanky, 6-foot-4 sophomore leads the Southeastern Conference in catches and receiving yards per game.
And while his specialty is the jump ball catch surrounded by defensive backs, Jeffery showed he’s got some leg speed to go with his hands.
“He doesn’t look like he’s fast, but no one seems to catch him from behind,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
The way the Gamecocks are going, they may be hard to catch in the SEC East race.
South Carolina is the division’s only two-loss team and can wrap up its first-ever spot in the SEC championship game with victories over Arkansas and Florida. But the Gamecocks first must shore up a secondary that gave up 312 yards, including a career-high 228 to receiver Denarius Moore, the second-best mark in Tennessee history.
The Razorbacks feature the league’s top passer in Ryan Mallett, who averages more than 290 yards a game through the air.
“If we’re going to beat (Arkansas), we got to figure out how to play some pass defense,” Spurrier said.
That might have helped Tennessee, too, in the fourth quarter.
The Vols (2-6, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) had rallied back from a 14-point deficit on a pair of touchdown passes from backup quarterback Tyler Bray to tie the game.
But that’s when Stephen Garcia found Jeffery for the go-ahead score. Jeffery also had a 12-yard third-down catch to keep South Carolina’s next series alive. That sequence ended with Garcia’s second 1-yard touchdown run, which sealed things for the Gamecocks (6-2, 4-2).
Jeffery “makes it easy,” Garcia said. “It’s good to lean on him.”
South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore had a career-high 184 yards and his 11th rushing touchdown in his first start since spraining an ankle in a 31-28 loss at Kentucky two weeks ago.
Things haven’t gone well in Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s first season. The Vols were run over by Georgia and Alabama in the past two weeks and Dooley compared his team to German troops watching the Allies’ D-Day invasion during World War II.
Tennessee, though, showed it wasn’t ready to give up anything to South Carolina with its second-half rally.
The Vols, trailing 24-10, pulled off their first successful fake punt since 2004 as Chad Cunningham ran for 25 yards on fourth-and-10. On the next play, Bray connected with Moore on a 30-yard scoring pass to pull within a touchdown.
Bray and Moore were at it again on Tennessee’s next series. The two combined for a 64-yard reception to the Gamecocks 2 and, after a personal foul penalty pushed the Vols back, Bray hit Gerald Jones for a 17-yard touchdown to tie it up at 24 all.
Bray told his teammates not to hang their heads. “I came back in the second half and said, ’Hey guys, lets go’ and started throwing it to the playmakers,” said Bray, who also threw an interception that defensive end Devin Taylor returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
The Vols had done a good job taking Jeffery out of the picture until his big play, holding him to one, 5-yard catch. Then it all fell apart.
It was South Carolina’s second win in three years over Tennessee, but only their fifth in 29 career meetings.
Jeffery credited blocks by receivers Tori Gurley and Dion LeCorn with springing him for the score.
Lattimore said Jeffery’s play showed South Carolina won’t break down when pushed. “It proves we can finish the second half,” he said. “We’re going to do that the rest of the season.”