Perseverance pays off

After a stellar junior season, Curtis McNeal struggled early this fall but is poised to finish on a high note. AP Photo/Ben Liebenberg

LOS ANGELES -- Curtis McNeal knows a thing or two about what it means to fight on.

Just two weeks ago, the fifth-year senior running back was the forgotten man of the Trojans' offense. Having rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a junior, he entered the season with lofty expectations, and rightfully so, but things hadn't gone exactly as planned. Losing carries to the newly arrived Silas Redd, on top of missing valuable time due to injury -- most notably against Utah and Arizona -- McNeal rushed for just 334 yards through the team's first nine games, and his career as a Trojan was seemingly winding down on the lowest of notes.

And while it would hardly come as a surprise if McNeal's spirits went in the tank long ago, that line of thinking simply isn't a part of his makeup.

"You learn throughout life that not everything is going to go your way," McNeal said. "Everything is not going to go as planned, so you've just got to keep going, keep fighting, don't ever give up. If you tell yourself that you can't, then you're not going to do it. That's why I just always tell myself that I can do it."

McNeal's philosophy served him well. With Redd knocked out of action with an undisclosed injury before the Nov. 10 matchup with Arizona State, McNeal was thrust into a featured role against the Sun Devils, and it's safe to say that he has run with it ever since. Amassing 324 yards and two touchdowns on the ground over the last two games, McNeal has been one of the lone bright spots in what has otherwise been a bleak late-season skid for the team. But for McNeal at least, it has been a remarkable return to his form of a year ago, a credit to his work ethic and his ability to keep everything around him in perspective.

"Every time you put on this USC jersey you have to get after it," McNeal said. "No matter if you're the seventh-string guy or the first-string guy, you come out here to get better every day, and you have to wear the Trojan uniform proud. That's what I try to do every day."

Of course, this isn't the first time McNeal has overcome adversity. Playing much bigger than his 5-foot-7 and 190 pound size would indicate, he brings a potent combination of speed and power to the running back position. Still, many top programs passed on the Venice (Calif.) product coming out of high school, their lack of interest based almost entirely on his diminutive stature.

Fortunately for the Trojans, then-head coach Pete Carroll didn't agree with McNeal's detractors, and McNeal wound up signing with USC in February of 2008. Showing promise early, he looked poised to make a move up the depth chart in 2010 -- Lane Kiffin's first season as head coach -- only to be ruled academically ineligible before the season. For McNeal, it was a devastating blow, but in typical fashion, he didn't waste any time feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he worked harder, both on the field and in the classroom. Ultimately, it would pay off in what would be a stellar junior season, which in turn has led him to where he is today.

"I've never doubted myself," McNeal said. "You can't doubt yourself. I came here with a purpose. I came here to be the best. I came here to be a part of greatness, and I think that I'm trying to live up to it every day."

Not surprisingly, the example McNeal sets in practice has made him a natural leader that the younger players can look up to, a responsibility that he embraced this past week with the Trojans coming off a disappointing 38-28 loss to crosstown rival UCLA.

"We can't let our record and what happened in the past affect us," McNeal said. "We just have to keep going and keep fighting -- just keep looking forward."

With No. 1-ranked Notre Dame coming to town Saturday, the Trojans appear to have done exactly that. But the USC offense will be going up against a Fighting Irish team that is tied for first nationally in scoring defense (10.1 ppg), so they're certainly going to have their work cut out for them. Adding an element of drama to the situation, the Trojans also will be breaking in a first-time starter at quarterback in redshirt-freshman Max Wittek, meaning Kiffin and Co. likely will want to lean heavily on McNeal for stability.

But it's not as if he needs any extra incentive. Set to play in his last game as a Trojan in the Coliseum, McNeal is more than ready to take on what will be just the latest in a long line of hurdles.

"You always want to go out with a bang, and this is the perfect way to do it," McNeal said. "We're playing against our archrivals, they have a lot to play for, we have a lot to play for, so it's going to be great. It's going to be my last game in the Coliseum, so I'm just ready to get after it."