Skip to main content

Pac-12 Football: Best Games of 2021

CJ Verdell, Oregon Ducks Football

CJ Verdell's big game on the ground helped Oregon upset Ohio State in Columbus and gave the Pac-12 a much-needed signature non-conference victory

While the 2021 college football campaign wasn't exactly a banner one for the Pac-12, it provided its share of memorable moments. Utah earning its first Pac-12 championship in honor of fallen teammates Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe was a decided high for the league, as was one of the biggest non-conference wins any team has scored for the conference courtesy of Oregon.

Best Games of 2021 by Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC

10 Best Pac-12 Games of 2021

10. Oregon 24, California 17 — Oct. 15 

Oregon's road to a third straight Pac-12 Championship Game was plenty bumpy, including this Friday night affair against Cal. The Golden Bears gave the Ducks' offense fits for three quarters, and Chase Garbers helped capitalize with a pair of touchdowns. The second gave Cal a 17-10 fourth-quarter lead.

With its back against the wall, Oregon rallied with a pair of drives culminating in Anthony Brown touchdowns, one a pass and the other coming on the ground with a little less than five minutes to go. The Ducks' defense did the rest, preventing the Golden Bears from a potential game-tying score even though they ran eight plays inside the 10-yard line on their final drive before turning it over on downs.

9. Stanford 31, Oregon 24 (OT) — Oct. 2 

Although Stanford struggled mightily in 2021, for one week it recaptured the magic of the 2010s with a high-stakes game against Oregon. What was the premier rivalry in the Pac-12 last decade added another unpredictable chapter, this time with the Cardinal rallying from 30 scoreless minutes in the second half to force overtime on an untimed down.

Tanner McKee threw this third touchdown in the extra frame to secure the win. This was certainly the most surprising outcome of the Pac-12 season, but not the most aesthetically pleasing game — and one marred by controversy over the officiating.

8. Arizona State 35, Washington 30 — Nov. 13 

Consider Arizona State's comeback win at Washington an exercise in the value of field position. The two teams combined for three scores on possessions that started on the opponent's side of the 50-yard line — and that's not counting Merlin Robertson's pick-six that capped a rally of 21 straight fourth-quarter points for the Sun Devils.

7. UCLA 38, LSU 27 — Sept. 4

Ed Orgeron's tenure as interim head coach at USC ended with a thud when the Trojans were blown out in the 2013 regular-season finale against rival UCLA. That outcome, and Orgeron's background as a USC assistant before, evidently stuck with the coach, who fired off some trash talk to a Bruins fan before LSU's visit to the Rose Bowl.

"Sissy blue" became something of a rallying cry for UCLA's best season under Chip Kelly and most wins since 2015. The Bruins gave one of their best showings with a 38-27 win over the Tigers, which included one of Dorian Thompson-Robinson's signature performances of 2021.

6. Washington State 34, Stanford 31 — Oct. 16 

Washington State endured an odd season with the mid-campaign firing of head coach Nick Rolovich, who left the Palouse without ever coaching a full autumn. Interim coach Jake Dickert performed admirably under less than ideal circumstances, even positioning the Cougars for a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game in the final weekend of the regular season.

Before Dickert took over, Washington State ended the Rolovich era with a wild back-and-forth win against Stanford. The Cougars got three touchdown passes from Jayden de Laura and a pair of rushing scores from Max Borghi, including the game-winner with 1:30 left.

5. Oregon 34, UCLA 31 — Oct. 23 

Oregon ruled the West during Chip Kelly's time in Eugene, and won a pair of Pac-12 championships in Mario Cristobal's tenure. The Cristobal-coached Ducks visited Kelly's Bruins in Pasadena with "College Gameday" in tow and appeared headed to a blowout win after Anthony Brown's 43-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

But with Oregon leading by 17 points, UCLA responded with a pair of touchdowns in just four minutes. The Bruins regained possession with a chance to pull ahead when Dorian Thompson-Robinson was sidelined, as backup quarterback Ethan Garbers led UCLA into Oregon territory — but a DJ James interception ended the comeback effort.

4. Colorado 37, Oregon State 34 (2OT) — Nov. 6  

Everett Hayes' 60-yard field goal to force overtime was one of the most stunning special-teams plays of the 2021 season, but not enough to score the road win for Oregon State.

Brendon Lewis played a monster game with passing touchdown passes and a rushing score to give Colorado its best win of the campaign.

3. Oregon State 42, Utah 34 — Oct. 23 

Rallying from down 14-0 in the first quarter and 24-14 at halftime, Oregon State handed Utah its only loss in Pac-12 play. B.J. Baylor put on a show unlike most opposing running backs against the stout Utah defense, rushing for 152 yards to lead the Beavers.

But perhaps the biggest swing in Oregon State's win came on special teams — an ironic development given how much of a strength that phase has been for the Utes in Kyle Whittingham's tenure.

2. Utah 42, USC 26 — Oct. 9 

There were certainly more competitive games than Utah's romp at USC, but "best" doesn't necessarily have to mean "close" — especially in this instance. What makes the Utes' win special isn't just that it marked their first in the city of Los Angeles since 1916, and first-ever at the Coliseum.

Rather, winning in their first game after the death of Aaron Lowe was an opportunity for the Utes to honor their friend and teammate.

"When things happen, it's either going to divide us or it's going to bring us closer together as a family," Tavion Thomas said in the postgame press conference.

Utah's cohesiveness showed through in this win — even when the Utes got the play call wrong, as was the case on Cameron Rising's flea-flicker touchdown pass to Devaughn Vele.

1. Oregon 35, Ohio State 28 — Sept. 11 

Marquee out-of-conference wins have been somewhat difficult for Pac-12 teams to come by in recent years, but Oregon delivered on a true signature victory with its 35-28 defeat of Ohio State. Playing without star defender Kayvon Thibodeaux, the Ducks held Ohio State to 14 points through three quarters and built a two-touchdown lead.

CJ Verdell ran wild behind massive holes opened by the Oregon offensive line, racking up 161 yards and two touchdowns (with a third receiving). The Ducks endured struggles after Week 2 with injuries and inconsistency, but in the Horseshoe, Oregon showed glimpses of being a title-contending team.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break