McNeal steals Trojans' big shot

Times Staff Writer

It was Senior Day for UCLA on Saturday, and family members greeted Bruins football players on the field just before their final game at the Rose Bowl.

With UCLA linebacker Eric McNeal were his parents, Eric and Denise, and just before they separated -- Eric for the sideline, his parents to their seats -- father had one parting piece of advice:

"Keep your head up," he said to his son. "All you need is one play."

One play to grab his own piece of UCLA football lore.

Montana and Clark have the Catch. Leinart and Bush have the Push. Now McNeal and UCLA have the Pick -- one that enabled UCLA to come away with a 13-9 victory that rattled college football from Pasadena to Ann Arbor, Mich., and Gainesville, Fla.

The situation: UCLA clinging to its four-point lead and USC driving with a little more than a minute left in the game. A third-and-four play from the UCLA 18 and most everyone wearing powder blue having flashbacks to the upset that wasn't earlier in the season at Notre Dame.

USC quarterback John David Booty turned to his left and tried to push a pass to Steve Smith in the flat, but McNeal, coming on a blitz, tipped the ball with his right hand and, as he fell to the ground, gathered in an interception that killed the Trojans' drive and seven-game winning streak against the Bruins.

"The coaches always tell us, 'Get your hands up,' and that's what I did," McNeal said. "I got both hands up and got it with my right one, I think. Then I looked up and saw it right above my head and just grabbed it."

So ended, presumably, five years of frustration -- four as a player and another as a redshirt. "No," McNeal said afterward, "for me it's been longer than five years. Both my parents went to UCLA, so I lived through all seven of those losses."

In fact, lived through that and more. McNeal's regular season didn't start nearly as gloriously as it ended. He was academically ineligible and missed the Bruins' first game while a paperwork problem was sorted out.

McNeal had been given an incomplete in one of his spring classes and couldn't get the grade changed by proving his work because the professor was out of town and could not be reached until the day before UCLA's Sept. 2 opener.

"That was hard for me, missing the first game of my senior season," McNeal said. "But I just had to keep a positive attitude and stay the course.

"I'm a competitive person. I wanted to play. But I'm also not the type of person to pout when things don't go my way."

That example wasn't lost on his teammates.

"How very ironic that it ended for him like that," cornerback Rodney Van said. "Here's a guy who wasn't able to play the first game this year, but he didn't let it affect him or his game or his attitude.

"He kept his head up, stayed positive, didn't get selfish, and when his opportunity came he was ready to make the play and he made it."

Alterraun Verner, another UCLA cornerback, talked about McNeal's leadership: "We needed him and he was there for us. He did what leaders do."

Added linebacker Christian Taylor: "That was the biggest play of his career. It was his last game in the Rose Bowl and the play he made he'll remember forever. That will go down in UCLA history right there."

For USC, it was a second loss, both on tipped passes. The other thwarted a potentially game-winning two-point conversion, so for the Trojans, McNeal's play was shades of Oregon State.

And for UCLA, it was an escape from shades of Notre Dame. Before McNeal's play, the Trojans were driving down the field the way the Fighting Irish did in October in a game-winning drive that crushed the Bruins' upset hopes.

That Notre Dame rally "was hopping around everyone's mind," Van said. "Here it was, late in the game, and we're letting them move the ball, inch by inch. They're not making big plays, but they're moving it. But we just said, that's not going to happen again. It was time to buckle down."

When McNeal came down with the ball, his teammates celebrated, but he joined them only briefly. His first thought: "This game is not over. What was there? A minute 15 on the clock? Still not over. Not in a game like this. Not against USC."

In the crowd, his UCLA-graduate parents were thinking the same thing.

"Against USC, you know how it is," said his mother, a former UCLA rugby player. "Things happen in the last second."

Not Saturday. USC got the ball back for only one more play, and a wobbly desperation pass by Booty fell incomplete as the clock ran out.

McNeal's moment was lasting.

"What a great way to go out in your senior year, playing in your last game in the Rose Bowl. To finish your last game with an interception like that," UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. "I'm sure he'll tell his kids someday how it ended and how he made the stop."

For McNeal, the stop was more than his. "The streak is over. We answered our critics. We shut them down when nobody thought we could," he said.

Said his father: "The perfect ending."


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