By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – After being denied for three-plus quarters, Alshon Jeffery finally just went up and got what he wanted.
Thanks to the 6-foot-4, 229-pound receiver, No. 15 South Carolina escaped Davis Wade Stadium with a 14-12 victory over Mississippi State in front of 55,418 on Saturday.
All MSU (3-4, 0-4 SEC) needed was one more hold, on a third-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Up to that point, South Carolina (6-1, 4-1) had been 2 of 14 on third downs, and Jeffery had been a non-factor.
But Connor Shaw looked left, saw Jeffery matched up on cornerback Corey Broomfield – who gives up six inches in that matchup – and lobbed the ball high. Jeffery slipped past Broomfield, went straight up, and made the grab as safety Nickoe Whitley tried to defend in vain.
That gave the Gamecocks a 14-10 lead with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left in the game.
“We had been trying to get the jump ball thrown all day,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, “and (Shaw) finally threw it perfect instead of out of the ballpark like the earlier one.”
All day, MSU had stifled Jeffery and tailback Marcus Lattimore, who entered the game leading the SEC in rushing. Jeffery finished with five catches for 24 yards, while Lattimore had 39 yards and a TD on 17 carries.
Lattimore suffered a sprained knee on the third play of the Gamecocks’ game-winning drive, but freshman Brandon Wilds picked up a couple of first downs, and Shaw moved the ball with both his arm and legs.
“It’s just a time that we have to step up and make plays,” State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “I think on that drive we missed a couple of tackles, and it kind of hurt us. Just got to make the play to stop them from scoring.”
MSU still had a chance, but Tyler Russell was intercepted at the South Carolina 12-yard line with 1:45 to go.
South Carolina took a safety on the game’s final play, with Shaw running out of the end zone on fourth down as time expired, sending MSU to its first 0-4 SEC start in five years.
MSU outgained South Carolina in total yardage, 296-289. Shaw was 20 of 28 for 155 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Shaw’s picks came in the first half and helped MSU keep it 7-7 at halftime. Johnthan Banks recorded his fifth interception of the season in the second quarter, snagging a pass intended for Jeffery in the end zone.
On the Gamecocks’ next drive, Banks tipped a Shaw pass that Nickoe Whitley picked off at the MSU 1 with 12 seconds left in the second quarter.
“You kind of expect that out of those guys in the back end,” linebacker Brandon Wilson said. “They kept us in it.”
Wilson had a strong effort, recording eight tackles and stuffing Lattimore more than once. Linebacker Cam Lawrence led the Bulldogs with 11 stops.
State recorded three sacks and got a good push all day on South Carolina’s suspect offensive line. The Gamecocks had 110 rushing yards.
“With the talent that team had, I thought our guys overall played pretty well throughout the course of the game,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said.
The game started with a buzz for MSU, as Russell made his first career start. There had been talk all week that the sophomore might supplant Chris Relf after rallying MSU past UAB the previous Saturday.
Relf never played, and Russell was 11 of 29 for 165 yards, a touchdown and two picks. After Jeffery’s go-ahead TD, Russell directed the Bulldogs down to South Carolina’s 32 before the Swearinger interception.
MSU had 131 yards on the ground but often had trouble building off the running game.
Kicker Derek DePasquale, normally reliable, missed field goals of 40 and 53 yards, and Russell just missed on some deep throws.
MSU took a 7-0 lead on Russell’s 19-yard strike to Chris Smith with 1:09 left in the first period. It capped a 10-play, 69-yard drive.
State was putting together a similar drive in the fourth, but it stalled at South Carolina’s 4. DePasquale’s 22-yard field goal gave the Bulldogs a 10-7 lead with 9:50 left.
The Gamecocks then went 79 yards for their winning score.
Mullen sounded a familiar theme after the game.
“We’re not far off from really where we want to be,” he said, “but we’ve just got to finish these games out and find a way to make the big play to win the game when the game’s on the line in the fourth quarter.”