LOS ANGELES -- Saturday's USC-Stanford game in front of a sold-out crowd at the Coliseum had one heck of a finish.
USC (6-2, 3-2) had the ball at the four-yard line and appeared on the verge of scoring its third touchdown of the overtime periods. The only question was whether the Trojans would convert the two-point conversion to send the game into a fourth overtime.
Then Curtis McNeal fumbled the ball at Stanford one-yard line, Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley recovered it, and the game was over. Stanford had the 56-48 win in dramatic fashion in triple overtime.
It all happened so quickly, especially for McNeal, the junior running back who finished with a career-high 145 yards on the day. He went from scoring his third touchdown and being probably USC's biggest start of the game to the one who gave the game away in a matter of seconds.
"It was really hard to see it end that way for him," said Trojans coach Lane Kiffin. "He played great for us all night long and came up with some huge plays.
"Unfortunately it just didn't end that way for us."
McNeal has now led the Trojans in rushing in five of their eight games, and he was incredibly effective against a tough Cardinal defense on Saturday. But he will, of course, go down as the goat for how the game ended.
And he understood that.
"There's no excuse, I just fumbled," he said after the game. "You've gotta hold on to the ball in that moment, in the third overtime and everything."
Kiffin has talked time and time again this season about McNeal's transformation from a player nicknamed "Moody" for his surliness to one of the quiet, understated leaders of the 2011 Trojans. He displayed the maturation after the game in a remarkable comment considering the circumstances.
"I feel like beating myself up but I just gotta keep my head up and keep pushing," McNeal said. "I'm going to face worse things in life. I just have to keep my head up."
His teammates agreed with him. Matt Barkley said he couldn't blame McNeal for the outcome of the game and safety T.J. McDonald said none of the players blamed him at all in the locker room afterward.
"At the end of the day, as much as it means to us, this is a game," said junior center Khaled Holmes, another one of the team's leaders. "We are all going to face worse things than this.
"But this was a tough, tough loss."