October 5, 2010 6:06:00 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Mark Ingram was already a rising star before last year''s South Carolina game.
Maybe a commentator or two, and some University of Alabama football fans, had even tossed his name and "Heisman Trophy candidate" together following a 172-yard game against the University of Mississippi.
But when Ingram ran for 246 yards and the clinching touchdown in the next game against the Gamecocks -- he was a one-man wrecking crew on the final drive -- that shot him way up most of those Heisman watch lists.
"They might have been talking about it a little bit after Ole Miss," Ingram said Monday, "but I think South Carolina was what really threw me in the race."
Ingram went on to become Alabama''s first Heisman winner. Now, No. 19 South Carolina''s defense gets another crack at him on Saturday in Columbia, when the top-ranked Crimson Tide come to town.
Ingram took over last year''s game because he had to. Greg McElroy and the passing game were thoroughly stymied.
So Bama turned to Ingram. He accounted for all 68 yards on the final scoring drive of the 20-6 win, carrying five times out of the wildcat before taking a pitch for a 4-yard touchdown.
"The game was still kind of close toward the end of the game and they just put me in the wildcat for five or six straight snaps," Ingram said. "I just wanted to get down there and put the nail in the coffin. I just really wanted to make a play for the team."
He made plenty. It was the third-best rushing game in Alabama history, and the final tally caught himself and his teammates off-guard.
"I didn''t expect for it to be that many yards," Ingram said. "It was crazy. It was really surprising. When I first heard the number, I had to turn and double-check."
And McElroy? "I was thinking, ''Oh my goodness,"'' he said. "I''ve never seen a performance like that firsthand. I''ve seen some pretty remarkable running performances. Glen Coffee had a couple of huge games and Mark has had a couple of huge games, but that was unlike anything I''ve ever seen. Against a ranked opponent who was really kind of shutting down the passing game and the fact we were pretty much one-dimensional for pretty much the majority of that night. As effective as it was, was really encouraging."
Or as coach Nick Saban said afterward: "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. He was fantastic."
Alabama hasn''t needed quite that kind of effort from Ingram this season, since his return after missing the first two games with a knee injury. McElroy has been one of the SEC''s most efficient passers, Julio Jones is back among the leading receivers, and Trent Richardson has shown he might be the nation''s best backup.
Ingram and Richardson are even still seeking a nickname for the combo. (Ingram favors "Fast and Furious", but still had to run it by Fast).
Alabama blitzed Florida 31-6 last weekend even though Ingram had only 12 carries for 47 yards -- and two touchdowns.
But South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier knows Ingram and Richardson typically make the Tide''s offense go.
"To slow down Alabama, you''ve obviously got to slow them (Ingram and Richardson) down to start with," Spurrier said.
That''s been hard to do. Ingram is averaging 7.9 yards on 45 carries, Richardson 7.4 on 57 carries. They have combined for 10 touchdown runs.
McElroy is making it harder for defenses to focus just on them. He has competed 69.9 percent of his passes and is the SEC''s No. 4 passer.
But he got a bit of a comeuppance against South Carolina last season as a first-year starter. McElroy passed for 92 yards and threw two interceptions after going 135 straight without getting picked off.
"I think I learned a lot about myself and the fact that I played last year with a lot of false confidence," McElroy said. "Up until the South Carolina game, I wasn''t sure what I was capable of. I had had success, but a lot of that success was -- I wouldn''t say lucky -- but it was fortunate. A lot of good things happened to me throughout the first five or six games.
"The South Carolina game really opened my eyes that if I don''t go out there and prepare and handle myself the right way, that I''m not going to be able to have success at this level. After this game, I kind of turned the corner."
And so did Ingram.