First, the disclaimers: Picking the wildest football games in Pac-12 history is a fairly impossible task, given the number of them and the proliferation of offense in this conference. But I tried to do it anyway.
So let’s call this an extremely arbitrary, highly debatable list of the 16 wackiest games in Pac-12 football in, say, the last 40 years.
I don’t claim it to be argument-proof. In fact, I left off some truly memorable games, like Stanford’s upset victory over USC in 2007 as a 41-point underdog. It’s safe to say that’s simply the most shocking result in league history — and perhaps ever in college football, given that the spread was the largest ever by an upset winner — but the other trappings of the game weren’t, by themselves, so unusual.
I also decided to leave Colorado and Utah games off the list. They did their work in the Big 12 and Mountain West Conferences (and WAC), and I didn’t try to deconstruct any of their histrionics. But they’ve had plenty, such as Colorado’s famous five-down game against Missouri in 1990 and its Hail Mary victory at Michigan in 1994.
Generally, the criteria requires a lot of scoring; it’s hard to have a wild 10-9 game. So almost all these were shootouts, many of them comebacks. But I also wanted a strong element of weirdness in them – strange accompanying factors that made them even more memorable.
The idea came to me after seeing a list of games the Pac-12 Networks plan to revisit this fall. It’s not perfect, but consider it an appetizer for some of what might await you in 2012. Arguments and appeals for other games cheerfully accepted.
In chronological order:
USC 55, Notre Dame 24, 1974. This is widely considered the craziest comeback game in history, not because of the margin surmounted, but the tidal wave of momentum that turned a defeat into a rout the other way. Since USC was sixth-ranked and Notre Dame No. 5, it also had a lot of national cachet. Notre Dame led 24-0 late in the first half but USC caught a ray of hope with a late TD before halftime. Anthony Davis then took the second-half kickoff 102 yards for a score, and the floodgates flew open. The Trojans outscored the Irish, 35-0, in the third quarter – this, against the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense – and by early in the fourth quarter, had put up 55 points in less than 17 minutes. The quote of the day came from Johnny McKay, coach John McKay’s son, a wideout for the Trojans: “I can’t understand it. I’m gonna sit down tonight and have a beer and think about it. Against Notre Dame? Maybe against Kent State . . . but Notre Dame?”
Washington 28, Washington State 27, 1975. How many times has this one been retold in newspapers, around water coolers and in Palouse and Puget Sound bars? The Cougars had everything their way, leading 27-14 with three minutes left at the UW 14, when WSU coach Jim Sweeney was talked into throwing the ball – some say it was merely a miscommunication on the execution of what Sweeney wanted – and Washington’s Al Burleson returned an interception 93 yards for a touchdown. A couple of minutes later, Robert “Spider” Gaines collected a tipped UW pass and sped 78 yards for a score, bringing the Huskies a one-point win in a game they could easily have lost by three touchdowns.
Oregon 26, TCU 24, 1977. What’s this? Well, you had to be there. In Rich Brooks’ second game at Oregon, the Ducks faced an equally downtrodden program. Oregon had opened with a competitive loss at Georgia and spent the next week practicing in Dallas. All the game had was a TCU player coming off the bench to tackle Oregon safety Kenny Bryant – who was on his way to a long touchdown after intercepting a pass – plus three players booted out of the game after a bench-clearing brawl unrelated to the Bryant play (including Ducks nose tackle Vince Goldsmith of Tacoma, who was one of the nicer guys around). That doesn’t even count the fact that Oregon blew a second-half 24-3 lead, saw the Horned Frogs come back to tie it, before the Ducks won it with a safety. It’s still the most bizarre game I’ve ever covered (even if it was between two bad teams).
Cal 25, Stanford 20, 1982. Let’s face it: “The Play” is the most famous play in college football history. Not that there was anything cosmic riding on the game, but for sheer, good collegiate, you-can’t-script-it fun, this is the topper – the five-lateral finish that enabled the Bears to beat Stanford. The Cardinal, remember, had put together a last-minute, improbable drive behind the great John Elway to take a 20-19 lead with four seconds left. Soon, there would be Joe Starkey’s unforgettable call on the Bears’ radio network: “And the Bears . . . the Bears . . . have won, the Bears have won! Oh my God! The most amazing, sensational, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!” The band member who got bowled over in the end zone by Cal’s Kevin Moen was Gary Tyrrell, whose trombone is in the College Football Hall of Fame. He became an amateur brewer whose signature beer is Trombone Guy Pale Ale. Cheers, Gary.
Washington State 49, Stanford 42, 1984. This might rank as the supreme comeback of all time in the Pac-12, given the fact WSU trailed by 28 points, 42-14, late in the third quarter on the Farm. Then it became the Rueben Mayes show. He led an onslaught of 35 straight points in a mere 15 minutes, 14 seconds, rushing for TDS of 39, 5 and 22 yards and scoring on a 53-yard pass play from quarterback Mark Rypien. Mayes rushed for 216 yards on 29 carries – which was about half his day’s work the next week at Oregon, when he set a NCAA single-game rushing record of 357 yards.
UCLA 38, USC 37, 1992. It’s tempting to make the call for UCLA’s 48-41 overtime victory over USC in 1996, but I opted for the LA crosstown-rivalry game four years earlier, simply on the strength of John Barnes’ colorful history. Barnes attended four schools, the last of them UCLA, and he was a fifth-string quarterback in fall camp in ’92. While awaiting admission, he slept in his car for a week, and in ’91, had attended the game with the help of a student ID card passed through a fence by his girlfriend. But with a rash of injuries at quarterback in 1992, here was Barnes against USC, leading the Bruins back from a 31-17 fourth-quarter deficit with three final-quarter TDs. He finished with 385 yards and the Bruins hung on when USC missed a late two-point conversion.
Washington State 42, Washington 23, 1992. The Snow Bowl. What else do you need to say? It was Drew Bledsoe’s finest moment as a collegian, and he later told me he never had as much fun in a football game as he did in this one. What I’ll always remember is how it seemed the Cougars simply ordered in a snowstorm on demand. It arrived in the morning, continued through the game, and then – after lots of fans were scrambling to find motel rooms for an extra night in the Palouse – it stopped soon after the game, warmed up and turned to rain. And anybody who wanted to could make it out. That didn’t include lots of crimson fans, who savored one of their most memorable Apple Cup victories long into the night.
Cal 42, Oregon 41, 1993. Is it my imagination, or has Oregon been involved in a lot of these wacko games? The Ducks had a 30-0 lead over the 17th-ranked Bears in the second quarter, which must have led a lot of fans to leave to do whatever they do in Berkeley. Dave Barr led Cal back in the second half with three TD passes, the last to the unspellable Iheanyi Uwaezuoke with 1:17 left. That brought Cal to within a point, and then Barr found a leaping Mike Caldwell in the corner of the end zone for the two-pointer to win it. It was probably the highlight of Keith Gilbertson’s tenure as Bears coach. Barr, meanwhile, said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever have a feeling like this again. We wouldn’t accept no for an answer.” Brooks, the Oregon coach, said, “It’s got to rank up there with the toughest defeats of my life.”
Cal 56, Arizona 55, 4 OTs, 1996. This was the first year of overtime in college football, and you have to say Cal and Arizona did it up right. Pat Barnes threw for eight touchdowns for the Bears – more on that later — and Keith Smith threw for five and ran in two others for Arizona. Cal scored to go up 56-49 in the fourth overtime, and then Ryan Hesson decided to take matters into his own hands. Who was Ryan Hesson? Well, the holder for Arizona PATs. After Arizona closed to within 56-55, Hesson made a read on the conversion try and thought he saw an opening for kicker Matt Peyton for a fake. Hesson flipped the ball back to Peyton, but he was downed at the 3 by Andre Rhodes and Cal survived. Arizona coach Dick Tomey said the call was his decision, and there’s a post-script. Tomey was one of those who called for the rule mandating automatic two-point tries in third overtimes and beyond, later passed by the rules committee. I wish NCAA statisticians hadn’t decided that overtime statistics are lumped in with those in regulation time. It skews records and renders anything in the pre-overtime era meaningless. Think of soccer. Would it include shootout goals among regular ones?
Arizona 31, Washington 28, 1998. The Leap by the Lake, that’s pretty much all you have to say about this one. With Washington clinging to a 28-24 lead, Arizona began a drive at its 20 with 2:52 left behind quarterback Ortege Jenkins. It carried to the UW 9, where Arizona faced third down with 12 seconds left and no timeouts. In the pages of the Times, we called it both “inspired and imprudent.” Jenkins took off and ran, and just inside the 4-yard line, saw UW defenders Lester Towns, Marques Hairston and Brendan Jones converging on him. With the game truly on the line – the clock would have run out without another play – Jenkins launched himself into a jaw-dropping somersault and landed in the end zone for the victory. UW quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo later took a competitor’s view of the play: “He wanted to score that touchdown more than we wanted to stop him.” No doubt Tuiasosopo and Husky wideout Todd Elstrom remember something else – that on a play in the fourth quarter, Tuiasosopo scored from 52 yards out but Elstrom, a true freshman, was called for a clip far from the play. That would have given the Huskies a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter and probably sealed the win.
Oregon State 44, Oregon 41, 2 OTs, 1998. This would prove to be Mike Riley’s last game at OSU – until he came back for good in 2003. The Ducks were 15th-ranked, and the Beavers were just 4-6. It was 31-all at the end of regulation, and OSU took a 38-31 lead with its first possession of OT. Then Akili Smith threw for Donald Haynes in the end zone on fourth down, it fell incomplete, and thousands of students in Corvallis poured onto the field. Of course, they didn’t see the pass-interference flag, and officials had to restore order, and when it was, Oregon had a first down at the OSU 13 and eventually tied it at 38. The Ducks started the second OT with a field goal, but Simonton scored on a 16-yard run to end it, and promised afterward, “I’ll be dancing tonight.”
Oregon 56, Arizona State 55, 2 OTs, 2000. The Associated Press story called it “as wild as college football gets.” Hey, we’ll be the judge of that. But this was indeed a zany game, one in which Oregon came from behind to tie ASU four times in regulation, but never led until the second and climactic overtime. The seventh-ranked Ducks got 434 yards passing and six touchdown passes from Joey Harrington and stayed in the driver’s seat for the Rose Bowl (they would relinquish that with a Civil War loss to Oregon State, putting Washington in Pasadena). It was wacko in the last minutes of regulation, as Mike Williams scored on a 59-yard run to put ASU up 49-35 with just 5:47 left. Oregon returned serve with a TD, got the ball back and drove inside the ASU 10. But tight end Justin Peelle was tackled at the 1 by ASU safety Willie Daniel on a fourth-and-nine play with 1:22 left and it looked like ASU was out of the woods. But Williams fumbled at the ASU 17, enabling Oregon to get the tying touchdown with 27 seconds left, Harrington to Peelle. Then came the overtimes, and it was crazy right to the last play. ASU, within one after scoring in the second OT, decided to go for two, but Jeff Krohn couldn’t connect with tight end Todd Heap to end it. Said Harrington, “I’m just speechless and in total shock right now. We left everything – physically and emotionally – on the field.”
Washington 29, Washington State 26, 3 OTs, 2002. I contemplated leaving this one off the list, but ultimately, it has to be on it, for the drama, the stakes, Washington’s comeback, and even for the controversial official’s call that ended the game. The Huskies trailed by 10 in the final minutes, stormed back and sent it to overtime in the Palouse against the one-loss Cougars. By this time, WSU QB Jason Gesser had been knocked out of the game trying to escape a third-quarter sack. John Anderson made huge, long pressure field-goal kicks for the Huskies (five all told), and it ended, to the disgust of the Cougars, on a ruling of a lateral and lost fumble on Matt Kegel’s throw to the flat – although it was knocked down maybe a foot from his hand. WSU, third-ranked, had to beat UCLA two weeks later, which it did convincingly, to get to the Rose Bowl.
USC 34, Notre Dame 31, 2005. If the stage matters, if the game’s consequence is important, then it’s hard to argue with the “Bush Push” game, when No. 1 USC kept alive its unbeaten season against the ninth-ranked Irish in South Bend. It was the 28th straight victory for the Trojans, who would go on to finish the regular season undefeated but lose to Texas in the classic Rose Bowl national-title game. This had all the rah-rah college trappings; Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis brought in “Rudy” of film fame and Joe Montana for the Friday-night pep rally, and had the Irish wear green uniforms on Saturday. Notre Dame led most of the way, but USC began a late drive, sustained when Matt Leinart found Dwayne Jarrett on a clutch, fourth-and-nine pass for 61 yards from the USC 26. Leinart eventually tried to scramble in from the 5 for the winning score but was shoved out at the 1 as the ball flew out of bounds, and though the clock ran to double zeroes on the play, USC coach Pete Carroll pleaded for more time and seven seconds was put on the clock. That’s when Leinart leaped successfully toward the end zone, aided in no small part by Bush, who confessed later, “I used all 200 pounds of my body to push Matt in.”
Oregon 44, Arizona 41, 2 OTs, 2009. The Eugene Register-Guard last year called this “as dramatic and important as any game in UO history.” Oregon had an early 14-0 lead only to fall behind 24-14 in the fourth quarter. But Morgan Flint tied the game at 24 with a 43-yard field goal that bounced off the crossbar with 8:02 remaining. Nick Foles then found Juron Criner for a 71-yard touchdown pass and Oregon’s fourth-down play went awry on the next series, which is when the “Zona Zoo” Arizona students began to spill down from the stands, ready to rush the field — a bit early, it turned out. The Ducks had an end-zone interception of an Arizona pass, and with 3:11 left, began march of 80 yards that ended when Jeremiah Masoli hit tight end Ed Dickson from eight yards out to tie it. Then Oregon, 11th-ranked, won it in overtime, enabling the Ducks to set the stage for a Civil War game to get to the Rose Bowl.
Baylor 67, Washington 56, 2011. You don’t need to read a lot about this one, but the sheer volume of points seems to demand the Alamo Avalanche be on this list. After all, Baylor’s total was the highest in bowl history until West Virginia stomped Clemson with 70 points a few days later. It’s mind-bending that Keith Price could have had a hand in seven UW touchdowns and yet his team lost by double digits. I’ll forever wonder what ex-UW defensive coordinator Nick Holt was thinking late in the game, when, needing to get the ball back (down four) and with Baylor in a run-it-out mode, Holt had the Huskies in a six-man defensive front, which Baylor promptly chewed up for the clinching score.