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Last Gasp, Last Grasp

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pass sailed through the air, toward the far corner of the end zone, and Markus Steele recalled thinking it would carry too far or be out of bounds, anything but a touchdown.

The USC linebacker was certain he and his teammates could keep Stanford from scoring. But then he saw that ball being caught and he saw the official make the call.

“He threw his hands up,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

That stunningly, the Trojans lost to Stanford, 32-30, on a touchdown pass with no time remaining. They lost after blowing a 10-point lead, thereby blowing any hopes they had of reviving their season on a crisp Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium.

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The defeat was all the more improbable because Stanford was forced to use its second-string quarterback in the game’s final plays.

Yet somehow Chris Lewis threw 20 yards to Jamien McCullum in the corner of the end zone, beyond the reach of USC cornerback Kevin Arbet, and somehow the Trojans (3-4) suffered a fourth consecutive loss.

Never before has USC been 0-4 in the conference.

“It seems like everybody has something on us,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Some luck or some magic.”

In the moments after the winning pass, Palmer hurried to Arbet, still standing in the end zone, and wrapped an arm around the cornerback’s shoulder. “I just told him to keep his head up,” Palmer said.

Outside the locker room, Athletic Director Mike Garrett found himself surrounded by reporters.

“There’s not much I can say right now,” he said. “We just lost a tough game.”

Inside the locker room, embattled Coach Paul Hackett was similarly at a loss for words.

“There’s not much I can tell them after this,” he said of his team. “They put their hearts and souls into this football game. They gave me everything I asked.”

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The Trojans came back from a slow start. They made big plays on offense and forced turnovers on defense. The shaky special teams even contributed a safety. Still, they lost.

Arbet, sitting in front of his locker, shook his head sadly, whispering something inaudible. Again, Palmer spoke up: “This game was more than just one play.”

It was, in fact, a familiar pattern of numerous good plays undone by costly errors. And, as has been the case too often during the losing streak, USC fell behind early.

Stanford (3-4, 2-2) got the jump because quarterback Randy Fasani, just back from knee surgery, looked sharp. Time and again, he found DeRonnie Pitts open over the middle.

“I was getting a lot of good separation,” said Pitts, who caught a career-best 13 passes for 176 yards. “He was making good throws.”

And the Cardinal, which had not scored a rushing touchdown since the first game of the season, was moving the ball on the ground with Kerry Carter, who ran for 123 yards and four touchdowns.

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Carter scored the third of those touchdowns on a two-yard run that staked his team to a 20-8 lead early in the third quarter.

Yet just as Stanford threatened to pull away, USC responded.

First came the offense, tailback Sultan McCullough bursting through a hole opened by linemen Trevor Roberts and Lenny Vandermade, sprinting 39 yards for a touchdown that made the score 20-15. McCullough would finish with 11 carries for 130 yards.

Next came the defense and, in particular, the maligned secondary. Cornerback Chris Cash made a diving interception in Stanford territory, setting up one of Petros Papadakis’ two short touchdown runs. USC had its first lead at 21-20.

Then, after the Cardinal had driven downfield, safety DeShaun Hill intercepted a Fasani pass at the USC one.

The Trojans built on their lead as Malaefou MacKenzie broke a 69-yard run to set up John Wall’s 22-yard field goal. McCullough followed with another long run, this one for 46 yards, to set up Palmer’s one-yard bootleg for a touchdown and a 30-20 lead with 8:16 remaining.

“I really thought we had it turned,” Hackett said.

But along the way, the Trojans had failed on a two-point conversion and missed two extra points that Wall drove straight into the backs of his linemen.

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USC had, in effect, left room for a comeback.

It started with Carter busting loose on a fourth-down play, running 20 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinal missed the extra point--it seemed like a critical error at the time--and the score was 30-26.

After the Trojans went three and out, Stanford got the ball back at midfield, the beneficiary of a wobbly punt into the wind. There was 3:42 remaining.

Even as Stanford drove downfield, Steele and his teammates believed they could hold the Cardinal. Things seemed to be going their way.

First Fasani had to leave the game after a hard tackle. Then, with the redshirt freshman Lewis in command, Stanford committed two penalties that left the team with a fourth and goal at the 20-yard line with four seconds on the clock.

It was actually a simple play that won the game, USC double-covering Pitts, giving McCullum a chance to sneak past Arbet. But, an hour later, Steele was still wondering how it happened.

“We knew what routes they were going to run,” he said. “We called our best defense and still they got it in on us.”

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Rattled

First time was the charm for Stanford’s winning pass play. D10

Blame Game

Players couldn’t stop Stanford, but they defend Hackett. D10

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Conference Crisis

Since the formation of the Pacific 8 in 1964 (Pac-10 began in 1979), USC had never gone more than three conference games without a victory--until this season. Saturday’s 32-30 loss to Stanford dropped USC’s conference record to 0-4. Following is a look at how long it took USC to win its first conference game (1964-1999):

* First conference game: 29 times

* Second conference game: 6 times

* Third conference game: *1 time

* 1971, Oct. 30 vs. California

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