ORLANDO, Fla. -- The winningest and best South Carolina football team snapped a three-game bowl losing streak Monday with its Capital One Bowl MVP tied behind Steve Spurrier's back for the entire fourth quarter.
The strange 30-13 victory path over No. 21 Nebraska is a fitting tribute to true season-long grit for the Gamecocks, and adds to the oddness of Alshon Jeffery's junior season -- likely his last at USC.
The No. 10 Gamecocks marched on, actually improving after their star receiver was ejected for mixing it up with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard late in the third quarter.
"I'm not surprised. We played through adversity all season," said USC quarterback Connor Shaw.
So well, in fact, it's easy to take the degree of difficulty for granted.
Who among you last August thought the Gamecocks could put the final touches on an 11-2 season by dominating the fourth quarter of a nice bowl game without fifth-year quarterback Stephen Garcia (kicked off the team), All-SEC running back Marcus Lattimore (knee injury) and Jeffery, the team's top NFL prospect?
On Monday, the talented enigma wrapped in a garnet mystery was on full display. No. 1 on the roster
(finally) was South Carolina's top priority on offense, until he went from first in your heart to first in the lockerroom.
An NFL message
Rarely do you get such a strange season summary. Alshon The Magnificent caught a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass from Shaw to end the first half, jolt Nebraska and put South Carolina ahead to stay.
"We practice that play all the time, but normally I tip it," Jeffery said. "But coach Spurrier always tells me if I have a chance to catch it, to try and catch it."
Jeffery didn't just make a swell catch, he extended the ball into the bright red paint of the Nebraska end zone while diving. See, that's the athletic move that separates Jeffery from other standout wide receivers. NFL execs must have been texting scouting departments from Miami to Seattle.
Jeffery with 148 yards receiving passed Sidney Rice for the most 100-yard games in school history (12).
"He's a good player," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said in a deadpan tone mocking the obvious.
But -- bet Pelini would be shocked at this -- it was Jeffery's first 100-yard receiving game of the season.
The 6-4, 230-pound scoring threat from St. Matthews was perhaps the most underutilized good player in college football this season.
He caught only four passes Monday against Nebraska's vulnerable man-to-man coverages. He caught only two passes against Clemson, but one was an 18-yard touchdown dagger late in the 34-13 romp.
Jeffery said he didn't think an ejection was warranted for his brief hand-to-face combat with Dennard, the Nebraska senior cornerback assigned to shadow him. Dennard also was ejected by the Big East Conference officiating crew.
"I kind of was surprised," Jeffery said of his banishment. "But things like that happen in the game. I wish it didn't happen, but we got the win."
Jeffery watched the fourth quarter in the lockerroom, but returned to the field after the game to claim his most valuable player trophy during an official ceremony.
"One more year!" Gamecocks fans cheered. "One more year!"
For the record, Jeffery says his early entry NFL draft decision will come after a talk with family members. Spurrier repeated Monday that he advises players to leave if they are sure first-round picks.
Jeffery, rated as the No. 25 overall prospect in ESPN.com's latest draft forecast, almost certainly is gone.
Rice left for the NFL after South Carolina's 2006 Liberty Bowl victory over Houston, and the Gamecocks didn't get a bowl invitation the next year.
No such 2012 concern for this core group of Gamecocks, mature enough in 2011 and on Monday to respond successfully despite the loss of a star. Or two, or three.
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