ATLANTA — It was no great surprise that Auburn’s defense keyed all Saturday on Alshon Jeffery.
“Everybody but Clemson and Alabama has,” Jeffery said.
Here was the surprise.
Auburn’s occasionally maligned defense dominated South Carolina’s previously indomitable wide receiver.
Jeffery, a super-sized sophomore, had just four catches for 36 yards and a touchdown in the Gamecocks’ 56-17, SEC championship game loss to top-ranked Auburn.
“They say we can’t play the pass. Say that now,” Auburn sophomore linebacker Daren Bates said. “We just showed them what we can do.”
After the first quarter, Jeffery had just one catch for 1 yard — albeit a touchdown that pulled South Carolina within one possession of the Tigers late in the second quarter.
The All-America candidate and Biletnikoff Award finalist didn’t have a single reception longer than 13 yards. He entered Saturday’s game with an average of 18 yards per catch.
Jeffery also entered Saturday with 1,351 yards on 75 catches. He’d topped 100 yards in seven of the Gamecocks’ first 12 games and reached 97 and 99 in two others.
“They spied him,” South Carolina senior tight end Patrick DiMarco said. “They weren’t going to let Alshon have an awesome game.”
Others have tried that, too. But it usually hasn’t worked. Only Tennessee has held Jeffery to less than four catches. The Volunteers held him to three, but they also surrendered a 70-yard, game-changing touchdown in the fourth quarter in South Carolina’s October win in Williams-Brice Stadium.
Jeffery said Auburn’s plan against him was “nothing new.”
“We knew that they weren’t going to cover me one-on-one,” Jeffery said. “They were going to be in a zone, a Cover-2 or whatever it took for them to win the game.
“They weren’t making no adjustments. I guess they were just winning up front, or whatever was going on. But they weren’t making no adjustments.
“I guess they had a pretty good scheme, calling their plays. We left a lot of shots out there. They just executed better.”
Jeffery didn’t say whether he thought he was open Saturday, and he didn’t say whether more balls should have been thrown his way.
“You’ve got to talk to Coach [Steve Spurrier] about that,” he said. “Whatever the coaches said, whatever the play was called, whatever it was, I guess that was what was best for the team.”
Gamecocks junior defensive back Antonio Allen, who tries to cover Jeffery every week in practice, could barely believe the sophomore’s Saturday statistics.
“You usually can’t keep him quiet the whole game, but they had him double-covered the whole game,” Allen said. “[Stephen] Garcia had to find some other receivers and try to make plays with those receivers.
“They had a good scheme for him. He couldn’t come up with any big plays.”
South Carolina freshman tailback star Marcus Lattimore said “it seemed like [Auburn] had three or four people on [Jeffery’s] side all night.”
“You can’t throw to him, because he’s at least doubled,” Lattimore added. They were keying on him. That’s what happens when you’re that good.”
Junior quarterback Garcia said he “should have gotten the ball to Alshon a lot more,” but DiMarco didn’t point the finger at any specific player as the reason for South Carolina’s surprising offensive struggles.
“They have a good front, and we knew they had a good front, and we knew we’d have to protect Stephen really well,” DiMarco said. “A couple of times we slipped up, but for the most part we protected him really well. He didn’t throw a couple of balls that he needed to throw, but the offensive line played decent. They didn’t do anything too unexpected.
“We just weren’t clicking. We weren’t hitting where we usually hit. Part of that’s the offensive line, part of that’s the quarterback, part of that’s the receivers. It’s on the whole team. We just didn’t play well tonight.”
The Gamecocks were quick to credit Auburn, though. And the Tigers were quick to accept it.
“We did what we had to do for four straight quarters,” Bates said. “Everybody did their job. We did what we said we were going to do. We shut down No. 1 [Jeffery] and No. 21 [Lattimore] for four straight quarters. And we won the game. And we’re playing for the national championship.
“I hope they keep saying we can’t play no defense. I hope they keep saying it all the time.”