The post-season has concluded for seven Pac-12 football teams, completed with an entertaining Fiesta Bowl Monday night. The league finished 2-5 in bowl games, which continues a dead spot in the post-season since the conference went 5-0 in 2008.
Since that rare unbeaten year, the league is 6-12 in years 2009-11, and hasn’t won more than two games in any of the three years. That’s revealing in that in the previous six years (2003-2008), never did the conference fail to win more than three games in the post-season, and never did it fail to have at least a .500 record. Now it’s gone 2-5 in two of the last three seasons (it happened in ’09 as well).
I wouldn’t try to make the case this league was any kind of colossus in 2011, but it is worth noting that bowl matchups have a lot to do with bowl success — as in, are you playing a team you should be expected to beat? In 2008, the 5-0 record was built heavily on several favorable matchups, not on any real dominance by the league. Similarly, this year it’s hard to make the case the post-season performance represented any real shortfall as opposed to expectation; after all, six of the seven bowl teams were underdogs (only Oregon was favored, and it delivered).
This was a year in which Stanford played a team in Oklahoma State that many felt should be in the national-title game; and Washington encountered the rarity of meeting a Heisman Trophy winner in the Alamo Bowl.
Still, 2-5 is 2-5. Reasons for the decline? Obviously, it hurts when USC isn’t in the mix. Oregon State hasn’t been the past two years, either, and it was a solid performer in lesser-level bowls. Arizona State and UCLA, two programs that ought to be annual forces, have been down.
Then there’s the defensive performance, or lack of it. Monday was vastly entertaining, with Oregon’s breakthrough victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and Stanford’s near-miss against Oke State in the Fiesta. But in the post-season, the league only added to its reputation as defensively light with a collective performance that very likely was its worst in history on that side of the ball.
Consider: In the seven games, Pac-12 teams gave up 39 points per game and an average of 455 yards. Clearly, that has to get better before the conference can return to elite BCS-league status.
To the grades, chronologically:
Arizona State, Las Vegas Bowl (lost to Boise State, 56-24): Doug Martin returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for BSU, and the Sun Devils were never in it, making it five straight losses to finish the season. So much for a win-one-for-Dennis effort. Grade: F.
California, Holiday Bowl (lost to Texas, 21-10): Bears didn’t really take advantage of some early dominance and Texas’ defense asserted itself as the game went along. Five turnovers by Cal spelled the difference. Grade: C.
Washington, Alamo Bowl (lost to Baylor, 67-56): Hard to assign a grade here, simply because the Huskies were so glaringly contrasting on the two sides of the ball. Clearly, the defensive effort (777 yards surrendered, a bowl record) means the Huskies flunked on that side of the ball. But the offense was terrific, led by Keith Price, and it shouldn’t be forgotten that Washington was a nine-point underdog playing at essentially a road venue. Grade: C-minus.
Utah, Sun Bowl (beat Georgia Tech in OT, 30-27): Somehow, the Utes found a way, despite allowing 448 total yards. They converted two fourth-quarter touchdown passes on fourth-down plays to get it done. And John White’s eight-yard bull rush captured it in overtime, although I’m still wondering why that lunge didn’t get reviewed. It looked like White could have been down short of the goal line, much as Oklahoma State was on its near-TD to set up the winning field goal in the Fiesta Bowl (that one was reviewed). Grade: B-plus.
UCLA, Kraft Fight Hunger (lost to Illinois, 20-14): The Bruins played all right defensively against one of the nation’s most pedestrian offenses. It was their offense that was abysmal, rushing for 18 yards and totalling 219. Maybe they could have been practicing their run game on the day the seniors did their High School Harry stunt of going “over the wall” and skipping practice? Grade: C-minus.
Oregon, Rose Bowl (beat Wisconsin, 45-38): The Ducks were hardly impressive on defense, but this is a Wisconsin team that can damage you both running and passing. Ultimately, Oregon’s speed and quickness was the difference. Now Oregon doesn’t have to answer questions about winning the big one. Grade: A.
Stanford, Fiesta (lost to Oklahoma State, 41-38): The Cardinal did everything but win the game. Andrew Luck was superlative, going 27 of 31, Stanford led time of possession with 41 minutes, 47 seconds, and the Cardinal surrendered 412 yards, which is pretty good against an incendiary Cowboys offense. But the finish underscored the fallacy of handing the outcome to a kicker when you’ve got a No. 1 draft pick orchestrating the offense smoothly. Stanford geared down for a would-be (but wasn’t) winning field goal rather than let Luck march his team toward the end zone. Got to figure he would have gotten it there; he was 15 of 15 on their touchdown drives. Grade: B-plus.