The top 20 Pac-12 bowl games in college football history
This postseason could be a glorious one for the Pac-12, as Oregon has a chance to win the inaugural College Football Playoff. It would not only be Oregon’s first-ever national title but would grant the conference bragging rights as the first to claim a championship under the new playoff format. Before the Ducks and their Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota take on defending national champion Florida State in the semifinal in the Rose Bowl, take a trip with us over the decades as we break down the best Pac-12 bowl games in college football history.
Michigan and UCLA had gone back and forth the year before, which created more drama heading into the game. The Wolverines had beaten UCLA in the Bluebonnet Bowl the previous year, but the Bruins had just beat Michigan on its home field in dramatic fashion. This would serve as the rubber match. UCLA was eager to defend its new home turf after moving to the Rose Bowl from the Coliseum for the ’82 season. The Bruins did exactly that, establishing an early lead from which Michigan never recovered, in large part because UCLA knocked its quarterback out of the game. Terry Donahue’s boys not only won the game but did so with precision, not committing a single turnover.
Oregon had a big chip on its shoulder heading into this game. Although the Ducks were ranked No. 2 in both the AP and Coaches polls, they were snubbed a chance to play in the national title game against powerhouse Miami. Oregon proved on the gridiron that the BCS made a major flub, demolishing Colorado, which was ranked above it in the BCS rankings. QB Joey Harrington downed the Buffaloes with an overwhelming aerial attack, passing for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Nebraska, which was selected to play Miami in the title game, ended up getting routed by the Hurricanes.
Getty ImagesJeff Gross
18. 1997 Rose Bowl: No. 4 Ohio State 20, No. 2 Arizona State 17
The Sun Devils had just wrapped up one of their greatest regular seasons in program history. Bruce Snyder had led them to an undefeated regular season and they flaunted a No. 2 ranking in the nation entering the Rose Bowl. If ever there were a chance for Arizona State to win a national championship, this was it. The game was tight from the beginning and tied 7-7 at the half. Then, in the fourth quarter, it appeared Ohio State had the game in the bag with a chance to go up by two scores inside their own 5-yard line. However, ASU forced the Buckeyes to settle for a field goal and then took the lead with a late touchdown. Fortune wasn’t with the Sun Devils that rainy night, though. OSU produced a remarkable last-minute drive that resulted in a touchdown, dousing ASU’s title hopes.
The nation’s top two teams facing off in the de facto BCS national title game, featuring four of the year’s five Heisman finalists, two of whom owned a Heisman Trophy -- the game needed no promoting. Despite being ranked below the Trojans, Oklahoma was favored to win the game. Nevertheless, this game couldn’t have been more one-sided. The Sooners scored first, but that would be the only snippet of OU splendor that game. Heisman winner Matt Leinart tore up Oklahoma’s defense, passing for a total of five TDs. The game that was slated to be an instant classic was over by halftime, as the Trojans held a 38-10 lead heading into the locker room. USC’s 2005 title has since been stripped by the NCAA, stemming from sanctions linked to running back Reggie Bush.
16. 1938 Rose Bowl: No. 2 California 13, No. 4 Alabama 0
Alabama had been to Pasadena four times and had won as many Rose Bowls. So, even for a highly ranked team like Cal, the Crimson Tide were a daunting matchup. Still, the Golden Bears had the top defense in the nation, having allowed its opponent to score in only four of its 10 games for a total of 33 points. Lo and behold, Cal blanked ’Bama in the Rose Bowl and pulled off the victory thanks to a pair of touchdowns from star halfback Vic Bottari. “Vallejo Vic” was named MVP and was later recognized on the first team of the Pac-10’s all-century team. He was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers -- the football, not baseball, team -- but chose to pursue another career instead.
Getty ImagesMike Powell
15. 1961 Rose Bowl: No. 6 Washington 17, No. 1 Minnesota 7
This game was memorable for two reasons, one of which occurred in the stands. Washington, led by quarterback Bob Schloredt, shut down the No. 1 Golden Gophers, grabbing a share of the national title (depending on which organization one refers to). What happened at halftime was even more unforgettable than the Huskies’ dominant win. In what was referred to as the “Great Rose Bowl Hoax,” students from nearby Caltech rigged Washington’s card stunt to spell out “CALTECH,” unbeknownst to Huskies fans. This ultimate prank has spawned off other Caltech pranks at the Rose Bowl, including an incident at the 2014 iteration of the game.
14. 2014 Rose Bowl: No. 4 Michigan State 24, No. 5 Stanford 20
The BCS era couldn’t have concluded with a better Rose Bowl. After all, it was fitting that the Cardinal play in the final BCS Rose Bowl, as they had played in the first-ever Rose Bowl in 1902. Stanford got out to an early 10-0 lead, but Michigan State made a quick response. With the game knotted at 17, the Spartans pulled ahead with a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but Stanford retorted with a field goal. Down 24-20, the Cardinal had an opportunity to create a drive that would be remembered for decades. With 1:46 left in the game, Stanford needed to convert on fourth-and-1 to continue its march for a touchdown. However, Kevin Hogan handed the ball off to Ryan Hewitt, who was stopped for no gain by the Spartans’ defense. Michigan State ran out the clock and notched their first 13-win season.
Despite losing to the two top-10 teams it faced in the regular season, Florida State and West Virginia, Miami somehow managed a top-10 ranking. That added fuel to the fire for Arizona, which had lost to the Hurricanes by a narrow defeat the prior year. The Wildcats dominated from the onset, thanks to a touchdown from QB Dan White and a 68-yard TD run from running back Chuck Levy. Better yet, Arizona completely dominated Miami on the defensive side of the ball as well, blanking a Hurricanes team that averaged 30 points per game on the season. The Wildcats, after all, had future two-time All-Pro and three-time Super Bowl champ Tedy Bruschi, who was the game’s co-MVP alongside Levy.
UCLA was headed for the national title game until it lost its regular-season finale against Miami. Despite a slight margin in the rankings, the Bruins were considered a much better team than Barry Alvarez’s Wisconsin squad and were expected to trample the Badgers. This was hardly the case. Although UCLA compiled a then-record 538 yards, with QB Cade McNown throwing for 340 yards and two touchdowns, the Badgers had an offensive juggernaut of their own: Ron Dayne. The future Heisman winner ran for 246 yards and four touchdowns, compiling one of the best rushing performances in Rose Bowl history.
Northwestern had a tremendous season, beating both top-ranked Notre Dame and Michigan in their home stadiums, and the Wildcats were confident they could defeat USC in what was essentially a home game for the Trojans. USC, on the other hand, had lost to Notre Dame and was coming off a tough loss to crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans didn’t have trouble mustering the motivation for this one, though. They asserted themselves as the better team, establishing a 31-19 by the third quarter thanks to a TD from Keyshawn Johnson. However, Northwestern let the Trojans find out the hard way that it was a resilient bunch. With a pair of touchdown runs, the Wildcats pulled ahead, 32-31, early in the fourth. However, the Trojans fired right back with a pair of scores of their own and pulled off a cathartic victory.
Getty ImagesStephen Dunn
10. 1966 Rose Bowl: No. 5 UCLA 14, No. 1 Michigan State 12
UCLA had the table set for an uplifting revenge of the Spartans. Michigan State, which remained undefeated throughout the season, defeated the Bruins in the teams’ season opener and also claimed their last two head-to-head meetings in the Rose Bowl. MSU was a 14-point favorite to win the game. Fittingly, UCLA scored the game's first two touchdowns and held a 14-0 lead into the half. With a scoring drought for the remainder of the contest, the Bruins had to rely upon their undersized defense to hold the lead. With less than a minute remaining, Michigan State had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion. The pitch came to burly fullback Bob Apisa, who was stopped by UCLA defensive back Bob Stiles. Stiles was knocked unconscious by the collision but prevented Apisa from scoring and saved a thrilling win for the Bruins.
9. 2006 Sun Bowl: No. 22 Oregon State 39, Missouri 38
Quarterback Matt Moore put the Beavers up early with a pair of touchdowns, one to receiver Sammie Stroughter, the other a rushing score. Yet, Missouri took a 17-14 halftime lead. Moore opened the second half with another touchdown, but Mizzou responded yet again and took a 31-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Tigers seemed poised for a resounding victory when they increased their lead to 38-24 with 12:08 left, but Oregon State mounted a historic comeback. Moore exploded for one of the most clutch performances in Beaver QB history, rifling two touchdown passes within the last six minutes of the game. On Oregon State’s final touchdown, Yvenson Bernard powered through Missouri’s defense for a two-point conversion, creating one of the most exhilarating moments in the program’s bowl history.
Miami was in the midst of a mixed first season under new head coach Jimmy Johnson. The defending-champion Hurricanes lost four games in the regular season, three of which were at the hands of teams in the top 15. UCLA, conversely, had suffered two heartbreaking defeats, both by two-point margins at home, that negated its national title hopes. It was a back-and-forth battle from the start. The Bruins scored first with a run from halfback Gaston Green, but Miami unleashed an offensive storm, scoring 21 unanswered points. Just when it looked like the Hurricanes were about to dominate, UCLA pulled ahead before the half thanks to Green’s 72-yard run, which was followed by a safety and a pair of field goals. UCLA’s QB Steve Bono led the Bruins down the field in the dying minutes and set up a 23-yard field goal that won the game.
Stanford, then with its mascot as the Indians, had Rose Bowl history with Michigan that went back to the inaugural Rose Bowl in 1902, which the Wolverines, 49-0. The rematch couldn’t have been set up better, as Michigan had gone undefeated that year under head coach Bo Schembechler. Defense dominated the game, and only one score, a Michigan field goal, was produced by the half. With the Wolverines up 10-3 in the fourth quarter, Stanford pulled off a successful fake punt on fourth-and-10 that led to a game-tying touchdown. With 1:48 left, the Indians marched down the field and set up a field goal for Rod Garcia, who had been shaky towards the end of the season. However, Garcia made it when it counted most and gave Stanford its long-awaited Rose Bowl revenge over Michigan.
Oregon’s undefeated 2010 season marked the beginning of an era of Pac-12 dominance under second-year head coach Chip Kelly. The Ducks had a shot at something truly special, as a win would grant the program its first national title. Facing Heisman-winning QB Cam Newton, everyone expected a high-scoring affair between the two prolific offenses, but it was instead the opposite. Auburn held a 19-11 advantage after capitalizing on a safety and kicking a field goal, but Oregon responded with a touchdown (and an iconic two-point conversion -- this time essential) late in the fourth quarter to tie the score. Needing a stop to preserve their title hopes, the Ducks couldn’t thwart Auburn on its final drive, and the Tigers kicked a field goal as time expired to win it.
Future first-round picks Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden made for a must-see matchup. Luck, who threw for 347 yards, nudged Stanford to an early 14-0 lead, but the Cowboys soon fired back with a pair of touchdowns from Weeden to Justin Blackmon, also soon to be a first-round pick, who scored three TDs that night. With glory in sight, the Cardinal had a chance to win the game in regulation. However, their kicker, Jordan Williamson, missed, sending the game into overtime. With a chance for redemption in overtime, Williamson missed again, and Oklahoma State put the icing on its best season in program history by making a field goal on the ensuing drive.
Getty ImagesDoug Pensinger
4. 1980 Rose Bowl: No. 3 USC 17, No. 1 Ohio State 16
It was the matchup that everyone wanted to see: two undefeated teams squaring off on New Year’s Day. It certainly didn’t disappoint the 105,000-plus in attendance and millions watching that made the game one of the highest-rated in college football history. USC’s Paul McDonald and Ohio State’s Art Schlichter both traded touchdown passes in the second quarter, but after a half of action, there was no indication of which team would win. Despite a strong rushing effort from Heisman winner and 1979 Rose Bowl MVP Charles White, the Trojans couldn’t convert in the second half and were down 16-10 heading into the fourth. However, White led USC to the promise land once before and was destined to do it again. Late in the fourth quarter, White plowed through the Buckeyes for a rushing TD that brought the Trojans their second-straight Rose Bowl win.
A year after competing for a national title, Oregon suffered a bit of disappointment by losing to LSU in its season opener and later falling to USC at home in Pac-12 play. Although the Ducks were favored in this game, Wisconsin had a formidable offense led by QB Russell Wilson and tailback Montee Ball. Oregon, however, had its own offensive combo in QB Darron Thomas and the elusive LaMichael James. Unlike their bowl game the prior year, this matchup proved to be a good, old-fashioned offensive showdown. Wisconsin, which held the lead for most of the game, was up, 38-35, putting the pressure on the Ducks to control their destiny. And they would do just that. Thomas threw a touchdown to begin the fourth quarter, and Oregon never looked back, forcing a fumble and shutting down future Super Bowl winner Wilson on the Badgers’ final drive.
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2. 2006 Rose Bowl: No. 2 Texas 41, No. 1 USC 38
A Trojans win would’ve been arguably the Pac-12’s greatest bowl victory of the BCS era. Instead, it resulted in one of the biggest heartbreaks in USC history. Pitting the nation’s only two undefeated teams against each other, it was billed as one of the most anticipated matchups in college football history and yielded one of the best bowl games to date. Texas had the 2005 Heisman runner-up Vince Young, but USC was armed with the 2005 and 2004 Heisman winners, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, respectively. Tthe Trojans added two touchdowns in the fourth to increase their lead to 38-26 with 6:42 left. Game over, right? Enter Young, who assembled one of the greatest clutch performances in BCS history and drove the Longhorns to victory, snapping USC’s 34-game winning streak.
1. 1975 Rose Bowl: No. 5 USC 18, No. 3 Ohio State 17
This was the third-consecutive meeting for these teams in the Rose Bowl. USC had won the first meeting, but Ohio State dominated the follow-up matchup. What better venue for a rubber match than the Rose Bowl! Everyone was on edge from the get-go. Pat Haden put the Trojans ahead in the fourth quarter, however the Buckeyes would grab the lead after a quick touchdown and field goal gave them a 17-10 advantage. With 2:03 left, Haden found Johnny McKay, son of USC’s head coach, for a 38-yard TD. Instead of trying to tie the game with a PAT, USC made a gutsy call for a two-point conversion, and Haden threw a dart to Shelton Diggs, who made a diving grab to put the Trojans ahead. USC’s defense halted Ohio State on the ensuing drive, and the Trojans pulled off the electrifying win and consequently nabbed a share of the national title.