USC’s thrilling, triple-overtime showdown against Stanford ended with applause — not after a last-second game-winning field goal or a goal line stand from an oft-maligned defense.
It came after a fumble from Curtis McNeal, the junior tailback who rushed for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries Saturday.
Hordes of cardinal and gold clad fans in sections 12 and 13, which drape the southwest corner of the Coliseum, stood up following McNeal’s fumble that resulted in a 56-48 victory for Stanford, its 16th straight win. They didn’t file for the exits. They didn’t race to the parking lots. They didn’t try to beat traffic — something ingrained into the fabric of most Angelenos.
They stood up and cheered for a team that played hard, for four quarters and beyond, showing a form of resiliency that remains all the more difficult to gloss over in spite of the circumstances.
Fans stood — virtually motionless — to give a standing ovation to the players as they headed into the locker room, through the tunnel.
It was a loss, but it didn’t necessarily feel that way.
Saturday’s game against No. 4 Stanford was supposed to be akin to last season’s similarly hyped matchup with then-No. 1 Oregon. USC would hang around, sure, but come third quarter, the Cardinal, much like the Ducks, would pull away and would do so convincingly.
In reality, the Trojans led 20-10 in the third quarter against Stanford. Last year they led Oregon 32-29 in the third. Against Oregon, they never scored again. Against Stanford, they would score four more touchdowns.
“It’s almost hard to be a winner or a loser in that game,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said at the post-game press conference.
But there must be a winner.
Saturday’s defeat marks the second this season for the Trojans. They slip to 3-2 in the Pac-12 — tied with UCLA for second in the conference’s South division. They will now be forced to regroup before their season ends in less than a month.
It’s tempting to talk about moral victories in Saturday’s aftermath, but doing so feels insulting to the effort put forth by a number of Trojans.
“That’s not good enough for us,” junior quarterback Matt Barkley said of moral victories. “All our guys are disappointed, because we know we had them.”
It’s been a messy year for USC football: sanctions, scholarship reductions, golf cart suspensions and failed appeals. You know the story.
But on Saturday, even in defeat, USC showed many fans what remains so special about college football.
No, nothing was pretty in the end. USC lost by eight points in overtime, even though it easily could have — maybe even should have — won. It committed two turnovers, a costly 15-yard personal foul penalty from junior safety T.J. McDonald on Stanford’s final drive of regulation, eventually leading to a 2-yard touchdown run from running back Stepfan Taylor.
Perhaps most glaringly, sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods never stepped out of bounds to give Kiffin enough time to call a timeout before the game was forced into overtime.
That’s what happens in a game that lasts long enough: Mistakes are made. This is college football. It is entertaining, it is exhilarating, but it has flaws.
There is bound to be a certain unpredictability in a sport played by 19 and 20-year-olds. Call it an imperfect masterpiece, if you will. USC played hard — not always smart — but that’s the way things go.
Its players represented the program more than adequately Saturday.
The Trojans went wire-to-wire with arguably the best team in the country. They shouldn’t keep their heads down. It’s tough, no doubt; the words “frustrating” or “disappointing” are probably insufficient descriptions — especially less than 48 hours removed from Saturday night’s heartbreaking loss.
But for the first time in what feels like a long time, most pollsters, most analysts and most fans are willing to concede USC is a good football team.
The reaction from the Trojan faithful was telling: This is something this program can build on. It isn’t the flashy signature win many insisted Kiffin needed. Nonetheless, it shows the program is alive and well.
No, it isn’t the annual national title contender most have grown accustomed to over the years.
But on probation, facing a wide variety of obstacles, USC has thrown aside the victim card, put its head down and trudged forward. It’s a top-25-quality team and it’s hard to refute that after what transpired against the Cardinal.
No one is supposed to celebrate losses; it’s frowned upon.
But after a rocky last 16 months, maybe tailored expectations are just fine. Maybe effort and character — what might often seem outdated in this current climate of college sports — are worth reveling in, at least for now.
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