South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has been trying to get Stephen Garcia to stay in the pocket for two years.
But the Gamecocks' quarterback picked the perfect time to improvise.
After putting No. 25 USC ahead with three touchdown passes to freshman Alshon Jeffery and running for a score Saturday, Garcia sealed the Gamecocks' 28-26 win against Kentucky with a third-down vault that earned a high score from the toughest judge at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"That was a big-time play there by Stephen," Spurrier said. "That might be his best play as a Gamecock."
The 5-yard leap on third-and-4 helped the Gamecocks (5-1, 2-1 SEC) to run out the clock and keep Spurrier perfect against Kentucky. Spurrier improved to 17-0 against the Wildcats (2-3, 0-3), while USC won its 10th straight against its East Division rival.
The game served as a coming-out party for the talented Jeffery, the Calhoun County receiver who spurned Southern Cal to sign with his home-state school in February. But Spurrier said Garcia's third-down play was a signature moment for the quarterback who has guided the Gamecocks to four consecutive wins and a Top-25 ranking.
With USC clinging to a 2-point lead with less than four minutes to play, coaches called a play-action pass to fullback Patrick DiMarco on third down from the Gamecocks' 26. When DiMarco was bumped at the line of scrimmage and covered by a Kentucky defender, Garcia ran toward the Wildcats' sideline and hurdled cornerback Cartier Rice to reach the first-down marker.
"I saw the little cornerback there, and I wasn't about to be stopped," Garcia said.
Kentucky defensive tackle Corey Peters, who had a career-high 2.5 sacks, said it was disappointing the Wildcats could not get off the field.
"At the same time, we have to give South Carolina credit," Peters said. "Their quarterback made a great play on third down when he jumped."
USC iced it when tailback Kenny Miles gained 14 yards on a draw on third-and-6 with 2:26 left. Miles picked up 28 yards on the final drive to finish with his first 100-yard game.
Miles benefited from Jeffery's earlier work. After the 6-foot-3 Jeffery torched Kentucky's undermanned secondary for three scores, each seemingly more acrobatic than the previous one, the Wildcats' switched to a two-deep zone so their safeties could help the young cornerbacks.
But the damage was done.
Kentucky was without both of its starting corners, including All-America candidate Trevard Lindley, because of injuries. Garcia said the plan was to go after their replacements - sophomore Randall Burden and freshman Martavius Neloms, making his first career start.
"We've been practicing all week, throwing fade routes and quick slants," Garcia said. "It worked out pretty well."
Jeffery scored on a 10-yard slant in the first quarter before pulling down a one-handed, 28-yard touchdown. In the third quarter, Jeffery made a great adjustment to run down a 22-yard fade in the end zone that Garcia threw blindly to beat a blitz.
After Jeffery's third score, Spurrier said quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus said over the headset: "Those Southern Cal boys don't come to South Carolina for no average receiver. They knew the kid could play."
Jeffery, who had five catches in the first five games, became the first USC receiver to catch three touchdowns since Sidney Rice hauled in a school-record five scores against Florida Atlantic in 2006.
"They called my number so I just went out and tried to make plays," Jeffery said. "I feel like any time it's 1-on-1 and the ball's in the air, I should win that matchup."
Kentucky stayed within striking distance despite losing starting quarterback Mike Hartline to a knee injury on the first series of the second half. Receiver Randall Cobb, the 'Cats' starting quarterback the final four games of the 2008 season, went under center midway through the fourth quarter and quickly moved the 'Cats downfield.
Cobb ran for 64 of Kentucky's 70 yards on the eight-play drive, which culminated with Cobb's 2-yard touchdown that drew the 'Cats to 28-26 with 4:34 remaining. But Cobb was back at receiver for the 2-point conversion try, which Cliff Matthews blew up by knifing into the backfield and batting down Will Fidler's pass attempt.
"We were all happy they didn't put that running quarterback in there," Spurrier said. "I'm glad they didn't use him until the last possession because we were in disarray there. Couldn't tackle him."
USC won despite allowing a season-high in yardage (360) and losing a season-high two turnovers - a fumble and interception by Garcia, who was 16-of-23 passing for 233 yards and a career-high three touchdowns.
The Tampa, Fla., native said he was trying to atone for the miscues with his leap of faith, which might have been perfect had he stuck the landing.
"It kind of hurt a little bit," Garcia said. "I'm actually a little tight right now. But it was worth it."
Stephen Garcia comments after USC's win over Kentucky.