Melvin Ingram III was ready when his big moment arrived, though it wasn’t the kind of highlight defensive ends usually get to brag about.
The Chargers had a second and one in the second quarter against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday when Ingram got the ball from quarterback Philip Rivers and tried to push his way up the middle and through the pile of bodies around the goal line. A second look was required to be sure it wasn’t running back Melvin Gordon III, who carried the ball 19 times for a game-high 58 yards. In that crucial situation the ball was handed to Ingram, who had sacked Derek Carr for a loss of seven yards in the first quarter and had never made a rushing attempt in six-plus NFL seasons.
“Melvin, he’s been crying to do it for so long. And he’s capable. He’s a good athlete,” said coach Anthony Lynn, who was reluctant to give the ball to fullback Derek Watt because Watt is wearing a cast to protect a broken thumb. “So we put him back there and gave him an opportunity.”
Ingram was stopped for no gain — or so the game officials said. After the Chargers had finished their 26-10 victory before an overwhelmingly Raiders-fan-dominated crowd at StubHub Center, Ingram politely but firmly insisted he had reached the end zone.
“I did. I scored. I promise I scored,” he said, smiling.
His teammates didn’t argue.
“He said he guaranteed that he was going to get in, and he still says he got in. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,” Rivers said. “He said there wasn’t a camera angle to get it. … That was the first goal-line play we’ve had all year. It was the first goal-line snap with the goal-line [personnel]. It was good to get in there. He didn’t get in there, but then we did.”
It all worked out fine for the Chargers in the end and gave them something to smile about after they improved to 3-2. On the next play, Gordon went around the right side for a touchdown, and in the third quarter Ingram helped protect the lead with a momentum-killing end-zone interception of a baffling pass called by coach Jon Gruden on first and goal at the one.
The smart play there would have been to let running back Marshawn Lynch pound the ball in, which could have cut the Chargers lead to 20-10 and energized the many Raiders fans in the announced sellout audience.
But Gruden, whose team is 1-4, directed Carr to pass. The throw was intended for tight end Derek Carrier but landed in the waiting arms of Ingram, who took it back to the four-yard line before running downfield to celebrate with his teammates.
“We expected that we’d have a wide-open receiver on the play,” Gruden said, “and obviously that will be second-guessed. Rightfully so.”
Carr called it “a great play” by Ingram to step in after Carrier had beaten one defender, but it was no big deal to Ingram.
“That’s football. Just playing football, really,” said Ingram, who made his only previous interception in a 2013 playoff victory at Cincinnati. (Incidentally, that came in his first game after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee eight months earlier.)
For Ingram, who tied linebacker Denzel Perryman for the team lead Sunday with seven tackles, playing football means excelling on both sides of the ball. He wasn’t ashamed to acknowledge he had pestered Lynn to be allowed to carry the ball and was delighted when Lynn finally gave in. The play had been drawn up a while ago, according to Ingram.
“They rewarded me. They definitely rewarded me,” he said. “It was cool, man. I touch the ball all the time in practice. It was just fun. Being in the offensive huddle, it felt like I was at home.”
His teammates were prepared.
“I wasn’t surprised because I knew we had that play in and I knew if we got on the one-yard line we were going to give it to him,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “I know he wants that play back really bad. He wants that touchdown.”
Defensive tackle Corey Liuget wondered how Ingram would have celebrated if his carry had been ruled a touchdown.
“I think he would have done a back flip because he’s real athletic,” Liuget said. “We’ve got to wait for it.”
Ingram must wait too ... impatiently. Even that vital interception didn’t console him for not being credited with making it into the end zone.
“No, no. I wanted that touchdown bad. I did,” he said. “I know I got in. Hey, maybe next time.”
Stranger things have happened. Some strange things surely happened Sunday, as the Chargers won consecutive games for the first time this season.