Over the next two weeks, we’ll be releasing our list of the top 10 moments of the 2011 USC football season -- one moment per day, each weekday. Our lists of the top 10 players of the season and the five biggest questions facing the Trojans in 2012 will follow.
We have judged our moments on three primary criteria: (1) overall impact on the season and the future, (2) impact on the game in which it occurred and (3) entertainment value. No. 10 was Robert Woods' 4-yard touchdown grab in the first half against Oregon. Here, then, is moment No. 9: Curtis McNeal's 79-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of the Washington game.
In their 10th game of the 2011 season, the Trojans led Washington 23-3 at halftime at the Coliseum, and, when Marqise Lee opened the third quarter with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, it seemed like USC had the game sealed surprisingly early.
Then Washington receiver Kevin Smith took the ensuing kick back almost to midfield, caught a 53-yard pass from Keith Price on the next play and the Huskies scored one play later and looked like they had another shot at the contest.
That was when McNeal got the ball, ran to left tackle Matt Kalil's right and was off to the races for a 79-yard touchdown run, USC's second-longest play from scrimmage this season. He wasn't touched by a Washington defender until the end of his run, when Huskies safety Will Shamburger tried to grab hold of him inside the 20-yard line.
And that was what made the play so great. Greeted by Shamburger's impending presence, McNeal calmly stayed the course and continued running down the sideline. When the defensive back -- six or seven inches taller and considerably heavier -- dove for him, McNeal stuck out his right arm and brushed him right off.
Washington didn't score again until the final seconds of the game, and USC recorded an impressive 23-point victory.
McNeal, a junior, emerged into a legitimate threat at running back over the course of the 2011 season. This run was the final step of that emergence -- his biggest, best run of the year. There were other big gainers, such as the 61-yarder against Stanford and the 73-yarder in the season finale, that netted him praise from coach Lane Kiffin and applause from Trojans fans.
But this one was big, if subtle. Like he was so good he didn't need to try anything drastic to get the defender off of him. Like it wasn't even a possibility he would run out of gas after 70 or so yards. Like he wasn't completing his development from academically ineligible to the No. 1 running back at USC in just a little over a year.
It was as smooth as can be for a run of that length.
Check back Tuesday for our eighth-best moment of the 2011 season, which happened in the Notre Dame game last month.