Rivals Washington and Washington State delivered an all-time great Apple Cup
The Pac-12 probably embraced the start of a new year. The 2018 season was not especially kind to the conference, which got pummelled on the PR front before it even started for its 1-8 bowl record to conclude the '17 campaign. An officiating controversy marred a great USC-Washington State game (that just missed the cut for this countdown), and a second straight season with the conference's championship excluded from the College Football Playoff gives fodder to naysayers.
Despite the national PR gaffes, the on-field product in 2018 was often entertaining, and always unpredictable. Cal's emergence, College GameDay visiting Washington State for the first time, Herm Edwards adding intrigue at Arizona State, Mario Cristobal bringing Nick Saban influence to Oregon, Washington State setting a new program record for wins, and more all contributed to an interesting 2018 Pac-12 campaign.
10 Best Pac-12 Games of 2018
10. UCLA 34, USC 27 – Nov. 17
Down the stretch of a trying campaign for USC football, the Trojans had two streaks still intact: One was its undefeated record at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum under head coach Clay Helton, and the other was a three-year run over cross-town rival UCLA. The former ended on Oct. 27 and spiraled into a three-game losing skid; the latter all but ensured USC would finish below .500 for the first time in 18 years.
UCLA endured its own trying times in 2018, albeit for much different reasons. The Bruins limped through the program's worst start in more than seven decades but came on strong with three conference wins on the back half. The third was the most gratifying, as the Bruins outlasted the Trojans in a way-more-entertaining-than-it-had-any-right-to-be back-and-forth contest.
UCLA's win included quarterback Wilton Speight showing off some surprising dual-threat ability, but the real highlight was SoCal native and former FCS back-up Joshua Kelley setting the rivalry's single-game rushing record.
T-9. Oregon 31, Arizona State 29 – Nov. 17 & Utah 32, Oregon 25 – Nov. 10
It might be cheating to including two games in the same ranking, but the nail-biting finishes between Utah and Oregon on Nov. 10, and Oregon and Arizona State on Nov. 17, share an important correlation. In fact, the story actually begins two weeks earlier on Nov. 3, when Utah lost quarterback Tyler Huntley to injury and stumbled at Arizona State.
The Sun Devils went into the final three weeks in control of their Pac-12 destiny, needing to win out, including at Autzen Stadium against Oregon. Arizona State trailed the entire game, including by 15 points at halftime. Jaylon Redd's score before intermission threatened to turn the contest into a rout, no doubt to the delight of Utah fans watching at home. The Utes blew out Colorado earlier in the day, putting the pressure on Arizona State for the division crown.
ASU responded to the pressure. Despite going just 3-of-17 on third downs, the Sun Devils mustered enough offense to get two Manny Wilkins touchdowns (one via run, one via pass) in the fourth quarter. The talented Arizona State defense buckled down, giving up only a field goal in the second half. That field goal proved vital to determining the Pac-12 South, as it gave Oregon enough cushion that ASU had to attempt a two-point conversion to force a tie — a two-point conversion that ended in controversy. Frank Darby made the catch dancing right on, or near depending on your perspective, the back line.
Oregon averted disaster when the two-point try was deemed no good, holding off a second straight loss to a South opponent. A week earlier, Utah staged its own fourth-quarter rally against the Ducks to keep its hope for a first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game appearance alive.
8. Washington State 19, Cal 13 – Nov. 3
One week after stunning Washington, Cal spun a similar defensive gem at Washington State. The Golden Bears forced the Cougars to play their game, holding them out of the end zone for almost 38 minutes of game time.
But the Washington State defense rose to the challenge in its own right. An interception in the end zone prevented Cal from taking a touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars rallied again to force a quick three-and-out after missing a go-ahead field goal. That set the scene for Gardner Minshew to drive Washington State 69 yards in 2:07, capping the win with a 10-yard strike to Easop Winston in the final minute.
7. Utah 35, BYU 27 – Nov. 24
Utah's move to the Pac-12 in 2011 pushed its longstanding rivalry with BYU from the final week of the regular season to September. The conference made an exception to allow the rivals to again play on Thanksgiving weekend. The timing initially looked like a burden for Utah, which had a conference championship game ahead of it and only bragging rights at stake.
BYU blitzed the Utes building a 27-7 lead in the third quarter. And then, Utah hit the gas.
Quarterback Jason Shelley, thrown into the lineup after Tyler Huntley's injury Nov. 3, played his best collegiate ball in the final 15-plus minutes. He threw for one touchdown and completed the comeback on a 33-yard TD run sure to go down in rivalry history. Running back Armand Shyne capped a pair of drives with touchdown runs. The 28-point outburst was a remarkable feat that Utah experienced the opposite side of a month later in the Holiday Bowl.
6. Washington State 28, Iowa State 26 – Dec. 28
No Pac-12 program had won a bowl game for more than a calendar year's time when Washington State met Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl. The league's burden coupled with Washington State also carrying the frustration of having been passed over for a New Year's Six bowl, despite finishing the regular season at 10-2.
Despite the high probability for a letdown, Washington State stormed to a 21-7 lead in the first half. Gardner Minshew started to put the finishing touches on his historic season with the Cougars by scoring on two passes and a run. Washington State was cruising, but Iowa State got a field goal as time expired before intermission, then battered the Cougars' defense with a steady diet of David Montgomery runs. The offense that had been clicking for Washington State went cold, and Iowa State cut the lead to a single point.
Although celebrated almost exclusively for its offense, Washington State's run to 11 wins came down in no small part to the outstanding work of first-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. Claeys inherited a defense losing some key pieces, but the Cougars were actually better in some facets than the underrated 2017 defense. And it was up to the defense to win the Alamo Bowl for Washington State, as Peyton Pelluer's forced fumble in Iowa State territory gave Minshew and the offense a short field. Minshew then ran out of the clock on the final possession, including a critical first-down conversion on a 2nd-and-9 that put the game away.
5. Arizona State 41, Arizona 40 – Nov. 24
It would not be unfair to say that in the Territorial Cup between Arizona and Arizona State, the respective fan bases dislike the opponent as much as they support their squad. To that end, having the opportunity to deny the other a bowl bid is a gratifying achievement, even if the chance to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game slipped away. Such was the case for Arizona State when it made the short trek south to Tucson for this year's installment.
Arizona endured a rocky start to the Kevin Sumlin era, but a rout of a then-top-15-ranked Oregon team and a shootout victory against Colorado sparked some life in the Wildcats. Arizona needed a win in the Territorial Cup to go bowling, and the Wildcats appeared well on their way through three quarters. Khalil Tate was dealing with three passing touchdowns, and J.J. Taylor rolled up 144 rushing yards. In total, Arizona accrued 520 yards.
It could have used another 10 or so to give kicker Josh Pollack a better spot for the would-be, game-winning field-goal attempt. Or, perhaps preferable, Arizona needed to avoid throwing an interception and fumbling deep in its own territory. Those miscues set up Arizona State for 10 of the 19 unanswered points it put up in the fourth-quarter comeback.
4. Stanford 38, Oregon 31 (OT) – Sept. 22
The end of the USC dynasty in 2009 left a power vacuum in the former Pac-10. Polar-opposite programs Oregon and Stanford eagerly filled that void, combining to win every conference championship from 2009-15. The two were ideal rivals, with Oregon embracing a visionary version of the up-tempo, spread offense; and Stanford emphasizing hard-nosed defense and methodical offense.
Oregon's style ran its course after the 2015 season, the combination of various factors. The program needed a fresh start. In came Willie Taggart, and almost as fast, out went Willie Taggart. Replacement Mario Cristobal stepped in with a background that included a stint as an assistant at Alabama. Suddenly, the high-speed Ducks more closely resembled the physical brand of football played in Tuscaloosa. And that made for a whole new dynamic to the fledgling rivalry.
The atmosphere surrounding Stanford's visit to Autzen Stadium was perfect, attracting College GameDay and the ABC primetime broadcast slot. And Oregon looked like it had never left the national stage, building an early lead that extended to 17 points by halftime. A Joey Alfieri scoop-and-score and Bryce Love touchdown run cut into the deficit, but a 6:11 scoring drive in the fourth quarter seemingly put the game away for the Ducks. Seemingly.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside's touchdown catch led to a confounding Oregon possession, which failed to milk enough clock and gave Stanford enough time to force extra frames. A Colby Parkinson touchdown catch in overtime completed the comeback, giving Stanford 17 points in the equivalent of four minutes of game time.
3. Washington 28, Washington State 15 – Nov. 23
A decade prior to their 2018 Apple Cup showdown, Washington and Washington State met in one of the most notorious college football games ever played. Washington was trying to avoid an 0-12 finish; Washington State had just one win on the season, a non-conference rout of FCS Portland State. The Rotten Apple Cup was a closely contested battle of infamy between two programs at their lowest point.
Those struggles led eventually to the hiring of Chris Petersen at Washington, and Mike Leach at Washington State. Two proven winners, their track record for success worked at their current homes. Just how far each program has come was never more evident than Black Friday 2018, with a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game at stake, and Washington State competing for its College Football Playoff prospects.
Although the 2016 Apple Cup was technically for the North, that felt (and played out) like only Washington was really at a championship level. In 2018, each program had equal bonafides. It was an atmosphere reminiscent of 1997, when Washington State out-dueled Washington in a snow-covered classic to land in the Rose Bowl. Washington reversed the roles this time, with running back Myles Gaskin adding a fitting regular-season finale to his impressive college resume.
2. Oregon 30, Washington 27 (OT) – Oct. 13
No Pac-12 rivalry is more acrimonious than Oregon-Washington, though the series history doesn't quite reflect the animus between the fan bases. Oregon controlled the series for more than a decade before Washington's romp in 2016, the first of two yawners that the Huskies dominated. With Oregon winning some recruiting battles recently, and Mario Cristobal adopting a more physical style, the Ducks were better equipped for Washington's regained swagger under Chris Petersen.
This was an excellent, well-played game that went back-and-forth from the opening possessions to the last. Dillon Mitchell was outstanding for Oregon, putting up 119 receiving yards and a touchdown, but the breakout star was freshman running back C.J. Verdell. He ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.
Oregon forced overtime with some fortuitous wind gusts. Washington had an opportunity to win in regulation and make it three straight wins in the series, but the Huskies' final-second field-goal attempt blew no good. The Ducks' defense held Washington to three points on the first possession of overtime, and the Oregon offensive line paved a massive hole for Verdell to roll into the end zone untouched.
Some added significance in a freshman notching the winning score? This instant classic looks like it could be the start of a marquee rivalry for the Pac-12, one in which two teams with top-20 billing and conference championship designs meet every year.
1. Oregon State 41, Colorado 34 (OT) – Oct. 27
Halloween arrived early in the Pac-12. The Saturday before All Hallow's Eve featured a variety of games that all could have made this countdown: N'Keal Harry taking over to lead Arizona State past USC in a shootout; Cal upsetting Washington without scoring a single offensive touchdown; Arizona's surprise bludgeoning of Oregon. However, no game on this wild last Saturday of October quite matched the craziness of Oregon State's first Pac-12 win in almost two years.
First, some context: Colorado began the month of October with an impressive win over Arizona State to move to 5-0, earning a spot in the Top 25. Do-everything wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. became an early dark horse in the Heisman Trophy race, and a potential second Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in three years felt like a distinct possibility. But Shenault was lost to injury in a defeat at USC, and things began to unravel.
Oregon State came to Boulder in the midst of a massive rebuild for first-year head coach Jonathan Smith. Ending October bowl eligible would have been a great way for Colorado to regroup from losing its star and a critical divisional contest. And, to that end, the Buffaloes charged out to a 31-3 lead.
The Beavers began chipping away, cutting the lead down just three with three touchdowns, a field goal, and a two-point conversion. Colorado could only muster a field goal in response and needed to block a PAT attempt just to get to overtime. Forcing extra frames would have seemingly put the advantage back in the Buffs' favor. But Oregon State drew first blood with a peppering of Jermar Jefferson runs, and a Jack Colletto goal-line score. That made the difference, as Colorado got to the Oregon State 7-yard line on its overtime possession, but could not reach the end zone in four tries.
Although a contest between the two last-place finishers in each division, Oregon State's win at Colorado had massive implications. The collapse more or less sealed Mike MacIntyre's fate as head coach.
(Top photo courtesy of @UW_Football)