It hasn’t happened many times in history, but college football fans have lived long enough to see the death of one of the sport’s great institutions.
The future of the Pac-12 remains in doubt, but we know for certain that it will never again be the league that it was. It’s hard to imagine a league so essential to the history of this sport, and indeed all of college sports, going away for good but such are the times we find ourselves in.
We at For The Win wanted to take this occasion to commemorate one of the titans of college football history, the Pac-12 Conference, by showcasing our picks for the greatest games in the league’s history.
This list — not a ranking — is admittedly biased towards modern history, as most of us here are millennials who were not fortunate enough to watch the 1930s Rose Bowls in person. With that caveat out of the way, please enjoy this walk through the history of one of college football’s great leagues one last time.
2004: USC 28, Oregon State 20
The 2004 Trojans might go down in history as the Pac-12’s best team, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. USC arrived in Corvallis to find fog so thick it was hard to see from sideline to sideline, leading to a slow start for their normally explosive offense. After falling behind 13-0, the Trojans finally came alive in the fourth quarter thanks to a spectacular punt return touchdown by Reggie Bush.
2007: Stanford 24, USC 23
There have been plenty of classic matchups between great Stanford teams and great USC teams, but this game certainly wasn’t expected to be one of them. USC entered the game as 41-point favorites, but Stanford stars Tavita Pritchard and Richard Sherman engineered a game-winning touchdown drive with less than a minute remaining to pull off what was, at the time, the largest point-spread upset in the history of college football.
2019: UCLA 67, Washington State 63
After falling behind 49-17 with just shy of seven minutes remaining in the third quarter, UCLA rallied to one of the most remarkable comebacks in Pac-12 history. The Bruins, led by quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, scored seven touchdowns in the final 19 minutes of play to eke out a 67-63 win on the road over a stunned Washington State team.
1992: Arizona 16, Washington 3
Washington entered this game ranked No. 1 in the country and on a 22-game winning streak, but it would all come crashing down at the hands of what would come to be known as the legendary “Desert Swarm” defense. Led by College Football Hall of Famers Rob Waldrop and Tedy Bruschi, Arizona crushed Washington’s vaunted offense led by Mark Brunell and announced the Wildcats as a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12.
2014: Arizona 49, Cal 45
After a hard-fought shootout between Arizona quarterback Austin Hill and Cal’s Jared Goff, the Bears led 45-43 with just a few seconds left on the clock. Arizona couldn’t get the ball close enough for a field goal, so it pinned its hopes on a Hail Mary heave by Hill. The pass was miraculously caught in the back corner of the end zone by Anu Solomon and dubbed the “Hill Mary,” one of the most fun game-winning plays in the history of a league with quite a few great ones.
1996: UCLA 48, USC 41
Our list of the best Pac-12 games of all time features a surprising number of huge comebacks, and this is one of the best. After falling behind 38-21 with just 11 minutes remaining in the game, UCLA went on a tear in the final minutes with a forced turnover by the defense and big plays by the offense to tie the game up. USC lined up to kick a game-winning field as time expired, but UCLA blocked the kick and sent the game to overtime. The Bruins eventually won in the second OT period with a game-ending interception in the end zone.
2006: Oregon State 33, USC 31
The Beavers were often kryptonite for the Trojans during their dynastic run atop the Pac-12, and 2006 was one of the most crushing blows Oregon State dealt to USC during that period. The Beavers capitalized on four USC turnovers and held off a late surge by the Trojans to pull off the upset and knock USC out of the BCS conversation.
1982: Cal 25, Stanford 20
What else needs to be said about a game that ended with a play so famous it’s literally known as The Play?
1996: Arizona State 45, Washington 42
Trailing 42-21 in the fourth quarter, Washington stormed back after bringing in freshman backup quarterback Brock Huard, tying the game with just more than five minutes remaining. Arizona State’s Jake Plummer led a drive in the final minute to set up Robert Nycz for a game-winning field goal. The upset over No. 4 Washington was one of the biggest wins of the ’90s for the Sun Devils.
2000: Oregon 56, Arizona State 55
If I told you that Arizona State compiled 663 yards of total offense in this game, you’d assume they won in blowout fashion, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Despite never leading in regulation, Oregon scored twice in the final four minutes to tie the game and take it to overtime, ultimately winning after two overtime periods. Oregon’s Joey Harrington finished with 434 yards and six touchdown passes, eclipsing a similarly spectacular effort by Arizona State quarterback Jeff Krohn.
2009: Oregon 37, Oregon State 33
One of the most spectacular games in the history of the Civil War rivalry was won by the legs of freshman running back LaMichael James, who finished with 166 yards and three touchdowns on just 25 carries and cemented a Rose Bowl berth for the Ducks.
2012 Pac-12 championship game: Stanford 27, UCLA 24
In just the second year of its existence, the Pac-12 championship game delivered perhaps the most spectacular show of its entire existence. Playing in its home stadium, Stanford managed to come out on top in a back-and-forth battle between two of the best defensive teams in college football, ultimately sealing the win with a 36-yard field goal followed by an impressive defensive stand.
2004: USC 23, Cal 17
I think it often goes unmentioned how many hard-fought wins were a part of USC’s run of dominance in the 2000s. The Trojans’ 2004 game against Cal was one of their toughest victories and featured a duel between quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Aaron Rodgers. A late surge from Cal put them within striking distance by the USC defense managed one last stop against Rodgers when they needed it most.
1982: UCLA 20, USC 19
UCLA saw its Rose Bowl chances starting to slip away when USC scored a late touchdown to bring the score to 20-19 with the Bruins ahead by one. Rather than play for the tie, the Trojans elected to go for two and get the win, but a huge stand by the UCLA defense sealed the win and a Rose Bowl berth for the Bruins.
2011: Stanford 56, USC 48
The Stanford-USC rivalry delivered just about every different type of game imaginable over the years, including this completely spectacular shootout between Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley. Both quarterbacks threw for three touchdowns and an interception, but it was running back Stepfan Taylor who sealed the victory for the Cardinal with a touchdown run in the third overtime.
Honorable Mention - 1983: Oregon 0, Oregon State 0
It wouldn’t be right to compile a list of the greatest games in the history of the Pac-12 without also including a game many college football fans hold up as potentially the worst game in the sport’s long history, a game so noxious that it’s become known as “The Toilet Bowl” by fans.
It was a low point for both programs, with Oregon State having won just four games in its last four seasons and Oregon, despite already being doomed to a losing season, favored by 13.5 points. The game took place during the wettest year ever recorded in the state of Oregon at the time, and that’s a high bar to clear when it comes to rainfall. Reports say it was raining sideways in Autzen Stadium but the teams trudged on anyway. The game included 11 fumbles and will forever go down in history as the final college football game to end in a scoreless tie.