The Pac-12's parity has been readily evident throughout 2013, though it's more clearly gauged with the regular season now in the books.
For the second time in three years, the Pac-12 ends the regular season with three double-digit-game winners, by virtue of Arizona State's, Oregon's and Stanford's victories in Week 14.
However, when Oregon, Stanford and USC accomplished the feat in 2011, the conference's next-best team was 7-6 Washington. UCLA and USC can both join the 10-win party in their bowl games. Despite its loss for the Territorial Cup Saturday, Arizona can win eight games for the second time in as many seasons under head coach Rich Rodriguez.
Washington matched its highest win total since 2001 with Friday's 27-17 Apple Cup defeat of Washington State. The Huskies can make it nine wins with a victory in the bowl.
As for Washington State, the Cougars are in line for their first postseason appearance in a decade.
The Pac-12's tide is rising, and all its ships are elevating along with it. New coaches around the league and upgraded facilities have contributed to the overall improvement, and both can be at least partially attributed to the record television revenue deal brokered in 2011 with ESPN and Fox. Greg Bishop examined the impact of the conference's revenue sharing in Saturday's New York Times.
Pac-12 football is undergoing a renaissance, and the conference's best years are yet to come.
Stanford Scores One for the Pac-12
Notre Dame may not have been able to take Stanford's Pac-12 Championship berth with a win Saturday, but the Fighting Irish would have left Northern California with serious bragging rights.
Notre Dame, which played one-third of a complete Pac-12 slate in 2013, had its four-game win streak against the conference's competition snapped Saturday by Stanford, 27-20. The Irish won in close calls over USC and a controversial decision against Stanford last season en route to their BCS Championship Game appearance, then matched that total this year with defeats of Arizona State and USC by a combined seven points.
Saturday's affair was another close call, but the Cardinal kept the Fighting Irish at arm's length after scoring their initial touchdown: a 16-yard strike from quarterback Kevin Hogan to wide receiver Devon Cajuste on a play head coach David Shaw called "a huge, unbelievable catch," per GoStanford.com.
The 6'4" junior Cajuste was limited by injury since Stanford's Oct. 19 win over UCLA, but his return to the lineup at full strength gave the Cardinal a much-needed extra element.
The play could be a sneak peek into the 2014 Stanford season, with Hogan and Cajuste both returning. Hogan fell shy of expectations in his sophomore campaign and struggled again Saturday, throwing two interceptions. Another offseason meshing with Cajuste and wide receivers Kodi Whitfield and Ty Montgomery could help Hogan take the next step in becoming a more consistent passer.
In the more immediate future, Stanford will continue to rely on senior running back Tyler Gaffney. He went for 189 yards and a touchdown Saturday. Regaining Gaffney in the offseason after he spent a year playing professional baseball was the single greatest boon for Shaw's offense.
Gaffney needs another big performance if Stanford is to return to the Rose Bowl. He scored two rushing touchdowns in the Cardinal's 42-28 Sept. 21 win over Arizona State, the Pac-12 South winner and host of next week's conference championship.
Arizona State Puts Momentum into Action
For those seeking a tangible, statistical metric to gauge momentum, look no further than Arizona State defensive back Damarious Randall's 64-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Sun Devils' 58-21 Duel in the Desert defeat of Arizona.
Trailing 30-7 at halftime, the Wildcats notched a quick score on running back Ka'Deem Carey's eight-yard rush, then the defense forced a three-and-out. Arizona moved the ball downfield effectively, which the Arizona State defense did not allow for most of the first half.
But the game went from a potential single-digit deficit to out of reach in a single play. Randall read quarterback B.J. Denker like a book, stepping into a Denker throw with nothing but green and goal line ahead of him.
"With the pick six, they just had someone out there watching my eyes," Denker said in the postgame press conference, per ArizonaWildcats.com. "He knew where I was coming and played it well."
Momentum is squarely on Arizona State's side headed into the Pac-12 Championship. Since losing to Stanford, the Sun Devils are 8-1 and winners of seven straight.
"Randall is a big time player. Our secondary has played big time all year long, and doesn’t get a lot of credit," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his postgame press conference, via TheSunDevils.com.
The Sun Devils secondary has done all it can to command its due credit. With Randall's pick-six, Arizona State has five on the season, matching top-ranked Florida State. The Seminoles and Houston are the only teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision with more total interceptions—23 each—than Arizona State's 21.
After Further Review
USC cut into a 14-0 deficit against rival UCLA Saturday on sophomore running back Buck Allen's 11-yard touchdown rush. Utah tight end Jake Murphy fumbled on a play that would have given the Utes an insurmountable lead over Colorado. What do these plays have in common?
Both were examples of how difficult it is to judge fumbles, even with video replay.
Allen's end-zone jaunt—his 10th in USC's last five games—ended with the back flipping the ball down just as he crossed the goal line. The touchdown call stood and overturning it would have been exceedingly difficult.
Conversely, Murphy's goal-line play for Utah was declared a fumble and Colorado used it for a 14-point swing. In a game decided by one touchdown, the call had a profound impact. Freeze frame seems to show Murphy's elbow on the ground and the ball still in his possession.
Coincidentally, neither decision affected the outcome. USC lost 35-14. Utah held on for a 24-17 win.
Game of inches is an oft-repeated cliche to describe football, but it's certainly appropriate given that it applies even to video review.
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