TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama put the game in Mark Ingram’s hands — and he put it away.
The bulldozing tailback churned out a career-high 246 yards and the game-clinching touchdown to power the second-ranked Crimson Tide to a 20-6 victory Saturday night against No. 22 South Carolina when the rest of the offense wasn’t clicking.
Ingram’s tackle-breaking, defender-dragging runs and a punishing defense helped the Tide (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) overcome four turnovers — doubling their season total — and 10 penalties. It also helped ‘Bama sidestep the down-to-the-wire scares No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Texas had — or an upset defeat like No. 4 Virginia Tech endured.
“Mark did as fine a job today as anybody I’ve ever been around, and that includes Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown and some really good ones,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “He was fantastic.”
Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks (5-2, 2-2) had never beaten a team ranked higher than No. 3 and were hoping for their second win over a top-five team this season, and third in 34 tries.
Ingram didn’t let it happen. He was practically a one-man show on the decisive drive. He took the direct snap for five consecutive runs — including a 24-yarder and 22-yarder — and then took a pitch in from 4 yards out with 4:54 left. Ingram covered all 68 yards on the drive and finished with the third-best rushing game in Alabama history. Shaun Alexander ran for 291 at LSU in 1996 and Bobby Humphrey had 284 at Mississippi State a decade earlier.
“To take the air out of the ball at the end of the game the way we did was a great drive,” Saban said.
Ingram said the Wildcat look caught the Gamecocks off guard. His punishing runs helped, too.
“That drive was probably the best drive we had all game as an offense,” Ingram said. “We struggled a bit but when the time came, we came through in the clutch. There were times where I thought about coming out, but I stayed with it.”
Ingram’s previous career-high was 172 yards set last week against Mississippi, which also didn’t manage a touchdown against the Tide. He has now gained 568 yards in three games against ranked teams.
“He’s just as good as anyone in the country,” Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone.”
The game’s only other touchdown fittingly came from a defense that sacked Stephen Garcia five times and kept him firing blanks into the end zone at the end of promising drives.
Safety Mark Barron stepped in front of Garcia’s first pass attempt in the middle of the field and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown.
“The pick six really changed the game a lot,” said Garcia, who completed just 4 of 18 passes in the first half. “I know it was only the second play of the game, but it did. I missed a tackle on the play too, which made it even worse.”
Garcia wound up 20 of 46 for 214 yards, and South Carolina managed just 64 yards rushing.
McElroy also was shaky against the nation’s No. 6 pass defense. His first pass — and two of his initial four — were picked off after he had gone 135 straight passes without an interception.
He wound up completing half of his 20 attempts for just 92 yards. Ingram made up for it on his 24 rushes and also caught two passes for 23 yards.
“It was an interesting game in that even though they were running for a lot yards, we were right there,” Spurrier said. “Obviously we couldn’t score touchdowns. We had a lot of backward plays, a lot of penalties. They are a very good team and for us to win we had to play real smart and we didn’t.”
Leigh Tiffin kicked field goals of 25 and 35 yards for the Tide, which had 10 penalties for 113 yards.
South Carolina couldn’t get points off two drives into Alabama territory late in the third quarter. The Gamecocks marched just across midfield on 12 plays before having to punt. Then Clifton Geathers stripped the ball from McElroy to give them back the ball.
But the Alabama defense held again and Spencer Lanning’s 50-yard field goal attempt was short.
The Gamecocks scored on field goals of 22 and 31 yards by Lanning in the final 3:14 of the first half but missed chances for more points. Garcia threw a combined five incompletions into the end zone, mostly on fade routes.
Both teams were missing key players. South Carolina’s No. 2 rusher Jarvis Giles was suspended. Alabama cornerback and return man Javier Arenas watched from the sidelines with a rib injury that Saban said acted up before the game.