COLUMBIA, S.C. _ "We got beat today," University of Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
It's been a long time since he or anyone else on the Crimson Tide side had to say something like that after a football game, but there was no other explanation Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium. For the third straight time while visiting a Southeastern Conference opponent Alabama put itself into an early hole only this time couldn't get out of it.
The No. 19 Gamecocks took advantage with three early touchdowns and didn't self-destruct to record the biggest victory in school history, 35-21.
"South Carolina beat us, so it's not like we just lost. I mean they beat us," Saban continued. "They out-executed us. They played better than we played. They play with more intensity. They played physical. They had a good plan and did a good job of executing it and we made far too many mental errors."
Alabama football fans may have been reminded of the movie "A Bridge Too Far" -- the historic telling of the Allies' failed attempt to capture several strategic points against the Germans in one campaign during World War II - because of the inordinate number of stars involved and the theme of overreaching.
Take your choice, playing three ranked opponents in successive weeks, including two on the road, or South Carolina (4-1, 2-1 SEC) being the first of seven straight opponents coming off a bye.
"It's not an excuse," junior defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "We knew what we had to face before the season started. We just have to do better."
But Alabama's epic run came to an end on many levels:
Among the streaks that were snapped were wins (19), regular-season wins (29) and wins against ranked teams (nine). The reigning national champions had been No. 1 for eight straight Associated Press polls (all six this season, the final two of last year), longer than any stretch in its history.
Also, in addition to senior quarterback Greg McElroy taking his first career loss despite throwing for a career-high 315 yards ("It hurts a lot," he said), junior running back Mark Ingram's chances of repeating for the Heisman Trophy were likely snapped by the team he burned to vault into last year's race.
With just 41 yards on 11 carries Saturday, he had 205 fewer rushing yards than the 2009 game.
"A lot of guys on the team never knew what it felt like to lose," Ingram said. "A lot of guys think that if we show up just because we're Alabama we're going to win. That's not the case. Hopefully everyone will take this loss and bounce back strong."
In contrast, South Carolina had never defeated a No. 1 team before (0-4).
"I think that was just meant to be," Steve Spurrier said.
With the Head Ball Coach having clearly done his homework, an early 22-yard carry by freshman Marcus Lattimore, just the fourth 20-plus yard run Alabama had allowed all season, combined with a 17-yard rollout pass to Tori Gurley got the Tide on its heels.
Then again, Alabama had also given up just three touchdowns during the first five games, which the Gamecocks matched in the opening moments of the second quarter. Lattimore's 9-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception gave South Carolina the lead, Alshon Jeffrey's impressive 26-yard reception extended it, and his second touchdown catch, this time 15 yards, took advantage of a sack (Antonio Allen) and fumble (Travian Robertson) of McElroy.
Meanwhile, poor snaps led to both a missed field goal and extra point, and even though Alabama outgained South Carolina 178-159 yards, the Gamecocks led at the break, 21-9. South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia was 9-fot-9 at that point while McElroy was 17 of 21 for 141 yards and had an 8-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones to cap a seven-play drive just before halftime. Alabama also had a huge time of possession advantage of 19:24 to 10:36.
It didn't matter. Garcia even gave Alabama a safety, taking a bobbled snap and throwing it through the back of the end zone, and was credited with could have been game-changing interception early in the fourth quarter, but the Tide couldn't take advantage of either.
South Carolina answered everything Alabama did, especially after its final possession down to the red zone backfired with a fake field-goal attempt on fourth-and-11.
"I probably didn't make a very good call on the fake," Saban said. "It gave them the momentum of the game back."
A 15-play, 82-yard touchdown drive kept the cushion, and a 51-yard touchdown reception by junior Darius Hanks was eventually offset as well.
"He just catches everything," Garcia said about Jeffery, who finished with seven catches for 127 yards. "I'm not dwelling on the interception. (DeMarcus Milliner) knocked it out of his hands as he was coming down. It's doesn't matter anymore because he made up for it with that one-handed catch that he took 45 yards down the field. That was a game-changer for me."
More like game-ender. After the final seconds ticked off, McElroy made a point to find Garcia, who had completed 17 of 20 passes for 201 yards and a three touchdowns, to deliver a message: 'We'll see you guys again,' meaning the SEC Championship Game.
"I thought that was a really nice complement from him," Garcia said.
McElroy can only hope so. Although South Carolina beat Alabama at its own game, by taking away the run (36 total rushing yards) and faring much better the red zone, the Crimson Tide still controls its destiny in the SEC West (5-1, 2-1).
"I think everyone needs to remember what this feels like," Saban said.