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October 18, 2009

On the Mark

TUSCALOOSA _ They have a word to describe football games like the one the University of Alabama played Saturday night against South Carolina: Ugly.

That is except for sophomore running back Mark Ingram who was pretty, as in pretty amazing.

With the passing game all but non-existent in cold and windy conditions, Ingram picked a prime moment to have a career night, with 246 rushing yards on 24 carries and one touchdown to lead the Crimson Tide to a 20-6 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Not only did the win possibly vault No. 2 Alabama (7-0 overall, 4-0 SEC) into the spotlight as the team to beat for the national championship, but Ingram into prime Heisman Trophy consideration.

"I hope so," senior right tackle Drew Davis said. "It'll be great hype to have. I think Mark's done a great job and is very deserving."

In four SEC games on four consecutive Saturdays he's tallied 608 rushing yards, and 905 overall despite missing most of one game with the flu. He leads the SEC with 11 touchdowns, hasn't lost a fumble in 302 career touches, and in three games versus ranked opponents is averaging 189.3 rushing yards.

"I was exhausted," Ingram said after the third-best rushing performance in Alabama history despite taking a helmet to a knee early on.

"It hurt a lot."

But Alabama's version of "Beauty and the Beast" was pretty grizzly at times with numerous miscues and uncharacteristic mistakes, including 10 penalties for 113 yards.

After having just four turnovers in the first six games, the Crimson Tide nearly matched that in the first quarter alone (and eventually got around to it later on), while junior Greg McElroy looked anything but the quarterback who set UA passing efficiency records earlier in the season.

"Well, you know I kind of had the feeling that his would be a tough game," Coach Nick Saban said. "Psychologically this is a tough league to be at your best every week."

Thanks to Alabama's defense, which was without senior quarterback Javier Arenas (ribs), South Carolina sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia had just as rough of a night with an interception, five sacks, eight hurries and 11 passes broken up.

His biggest mistake came on the first attempt, a pass over the middle that sophomore safety Mark Barron intercepted and returned 77 yards for a touchdown, the seventh longest in Tide history.

"I think that play helped to set the tone for the game," Barron said. "The defense played great the entire night."

With No. 22 South Carolina (5-2, 2-2) taking a page from Kentucky and had players moving after McElroy made his pre-snap reads, the quarterback struggled to complete 10 of 20 passes for 92 yards, just two to a wide receiver, sophomore Marquis Maze (who snared a potential interception away from a defender).

But his gaffes weren't nearly as costly, including sideline pass caught by safety C.C. Whitlock nullified by sophomore receiver Julio Jones, who came back to knock the ball loose while making the tackle with teammate Darius Hanks recovering. The Tide went on to finish the drive with a field goal.

"That was big," Saban said. "It was a great that he caught the guy and tackled him, but to strip the ball out and get the turnover with us back in really good field position was a real key. Julio, I guess he didn't catch any passes, but he played a really good game."

South Carolina only had 11 yards of total offense late in the second quarter when Garcia finally found freshman receiver Alshon Jeffrey over the middle for a 52-yard gain to set up a field goal. It was one of three trips to the red zone for the Gamecocks, only the Tide managed to extend its string of not allowing a touchdown to eight quarters (132:52 of game time).

Meanwhile, Ingram kept churning, with his 54-yard carry setting up another field goal, and having 146 rushing yards at halftime. His 10.4 average barely decreased over the final two quarters and Alabama put the game away with its final touchdown drive, when Ingram took six snaps in the wildcat formation for 68 yards to set up his 4-yard score.

"We hadn't run that all game," Ingram said. "To come out with that on the last drive caught them off-guard. I thought we did a great job executing that drive, probably the best of the whole game."

That part of homecoming was a thing of beauty, and the best rushing performance ever by an Alabama player at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"I think that's the sign of a good team," Saban said. "I'm very proud of our players for being able to go out there and earn this and fight their way through it. They did what they needed to do to win the game.

"You can say it's winning ugly or whatever, but it's still winning."


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