In the battle of ex-South Carolina teammates, roommates and friends, Stephon Gilmore won the battle but Alshon Jeffery won the ring.
Jeffery, the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 1 wideout, caught three passes for 73 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s 41-33 win against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII, backing up his boast that the Eagles would bring the Lombardi Trophy home to South Philadelphia.
“Y’all doubting us now? I bet Vegas doubted us, too,” Jeffery said. “Hey, we’re world champs. We’re not underdogs, we’re top dogs.”
Jeffery was one of the top dogs in the first half, making two sensational catches, including a 34-yard pass from Nick Foles for the game’s first touchdown.
The 6-foot-4 Jeffery did what he’s done since he was a five-star recruit at tiny Calhoun County High in South Carolina, leaping to catch Nick Foles’ pass at its peak above a smaller defender – cornerback Eric Rowe, who started in place of Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler in a curious move by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“I practice it all the time. It was a great throw. The O-line did a hell of a job protecting,” Jeffery said. “What can I say? A touchdown at the Super Bowl. Great feeling.”
Jeffery pulled down a diving catch in the second quarter that Foles threaded between safety Patrick Chung and Gilmore, the Patriots’ corner who played three seasons with Jeffery with the Gamecocks after coming to Columbia as part of a program-changing recruiting class under Steve Spurrier.
The Jeffery-Gilmore matchup was a fascinating subplot to a wildly entertaining game Sunday, which saw a bunch of offensive records go down.
Later in the second quarter, Foles threw deep down the right sideline for Jeffery. With Gilmore running with him stride for stride, Jeffery reached for the ball and ended up batting it to Patriots safety Duron Harmon for an interception.
On their next drive the Eagles drove to the Patriots’ 1, when Gilmore again lined up against Jeffery in man coverage. After Gilmore knocked Foles’ pass away from Jeffery in the end zone, he stepped over Jeffery and the two exchanged words.
Gilmore brushed off the trash talk, saying: “We were just out there competing against each other, trying to make plays to help our team win.”
Eagles coach Doug Pederson called the play of his life on the next snap – a trick play with an interesting history.
First, what it looked like: A direct snap to running back Corey Clement, who pitched to tight end Trey Burton, who threw to a wide-open Foles in the end zone.
Now, where it came from: Philadelphia took the play from the Bears, who used it against the Vikings in U.S. Bank Stadium in the 2016 finale, with the same result. Jeffery says the Bears, his former team, borrowed the play from Clemson, his longtime rival.
“We call it Clemson special. I know I’m a Gamecock, but Clemson had run the play,” Jeffery said. “And we took that in Chicago and we took that here.”
Who did Clemson run it against?
“I can’t remember,” Jeffery said, smiling. “It wasn’t South Carolina.”
The Foles’ touchdown catch was among the many nutty plays in a game that featured 1,151 combined yards (shattering the former record before the end of the third quarter), a record 505 passing yards by Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (shattering his own Super Bowl record from last year against Atlanta) and exactly one punt (by the Eagles).
“That’s crazy. I didn’t even know that. That’s not good for defense,” Gilmore said of the one-punt stat. “We just could never get off the field. We could never make the play to give the ball back to our offense.”
Gilmore, the Rock Hill native who lives in Charlotte, did his part in the second half when Patriots coaches told him to find his former teammate/roommate and cover him like the cold covered Minneapolis all week.
“I tried my best to cover him,” Gilmore said. “He didn’t have a catch, so I guess I did good.”
Jeffery was a groomsman in Gilmore’s 2014 wedding, but he wasn’t in the mood to toast him after Sunday’s game.
“I fell on the interception, that was my fault. It wasn’t nothing he did,” Jeffery said. “The other play in the end zone, I was cramping. I couldn’t run. I was trying to tell my coach to bring me out. The second half was my calves were cramping the last couple minutes.”
Jeffery was targeted only once in the second half – an incompletion.
But he’d already left his mark on the game.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Jeffery’s TD was a big early spark.
“That was a big play to get the offense going. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. He’s one of the best players and unselfish,” Reich said. “He set the tone for our offense really the whole year, not only with his play but his unselfish attitude.”
Jeffery and Gilmore didn’t speak all week leading up to the game.
They didn’t talk after the game, either.
“There’s no friends on the field when you’re going against anybody. I could be going against my son and I’m still going to give him all I’ve got,” said Gilmore, who finished with four tackles and two pass breakups.
“I didn’t see him after the game. I just walked off the field,” Gilmore added. “He’s still my friend, my guy.”
Jeffery was too busy basking in the post-confetti glow to dive too deeply into the Gamecocks-within-the-game matchup.
Jeffery enjoyed reminding everyone at his riser in the interview area that he had called the Eagles’ shot.
Asked if he was ready to guarantee another title, Jeffery shook his head and laughed.
“I’m going to enjoy this one, man,” he said.
For a long time. Forever.