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Pac-12 bowl review: Twin collapses in LA, marginal collective improvement


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The best and worst of the Pac-12's postseason …

Top storyline I: The upturn continues (barely)

The Pac-12's rebirth, apparent throughout the regular season — and confirmed with the placement of six teams in the final playoff rankings — continued into the postseason.

That said, everything is relative. On an absolute scale, the 3-4 bowl record, which included a 0-2 mark in the New Year's Six matchups (Cotton and Rose bowls), isn't cause for celebration across the conference footprint.

But compared to recent postseason performances — the Pac-12 was winless in two games in 2020 and winless in five games in 2021 — the showing over the past 17 days qualifies as an improvement.

Top storyline II: The L.A. tango

Forever in each other's shadow because of their proximity, UCLA and USC have been tied even closer since declaring themselves Big Ten-bound six months ago. Their seasons followed parallel tracks, as well, with first-rate offenses and third-class defenses.

Fittingly, their bowl games were more alike than different, with each team losing a game it should have won and each fan base feeling deeply unsatisfied.

Best offensive player: USC's Caleb Williams

The Heisman Trophy winner produced another stellar performance, completing 37-of-52 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns and staking the Trojans to a 45-30 lead over Tulane before their defense wilted.

Next year, maybe Williams should play defensive back, too.

Best defensive player: Washington's Bralen Trice

The sophomore edge rusher showed why he's one of the top young talents in the conference with two sacks and six tackles in the victory over Texas. For his efforts, Trice was named defensive MVP of the Alamo Bowl.

Best special teams player: Oregon State's Jack Colletto

In his final game for the Beavers, the 'Jackhammer' contributed to the 30-3 victory over Florida on several occasions. In addition to his standard work on offense and defense, Colletto blocked a punt and ran for a first down on a fake punt.

Mr. Everything until the very end.

Best win: Oregon State

The Beavers demolished Florida in the Las Vegas Bowl, scoring the first 30 points before the Gators kicked a field goal in the final seconds. The result, on Dec. 17, snapped the Pac-12's two-year bowl losing streak and pushed OSU's win total to 10.

What a season for coach Jonathan Smith and his program.

Worst finish I: UCLA

The Bruins led Pittsburgh by two touchdowns late in the third quarter but were outscored 23-7 down the stretch of the Sun Bowl. Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions, and the defense was hapless (again).

UCLA's nine-win season feels more like 7-6.

Best team: Washington

The Huskies never trailed in their 27-20 victory over Texas, which not only snapped the Pac-12's three-game losing streak in the Alamo Bowl but also secured UW's 11th victory of the season.

Within the conference, only USC can match that total. If any Pac-12 team has played better than the Huskies since Nov. 1, we haven't seen it.

Worst finish II: USC

The Trojans led Tulane 45-30 with four minutes remaining in the Cotton Bowl and were outscored 16-0 for a gut-punch loss.

The complete-and-utter collapse included a safety — USC running back Austin Jones was tackled in the end zone — and those two points loomed large when the Green Wave scored a touchdown with nine seconds remaining.

Best drive: Oregon

Down six points to North Carolina with just under three minutes remaining in the Holiday Bowl, the Ducks covered 79 yards in eight plays and scored the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left on a pass from quarterback Bo Nix to receiver Chase Cota.

Nix was nails on the drive.

Most predictable outcome: Washington State

The Cougars dealt with postseason challenges beyond the typical roster attrition, facing a highly-motivated, well-coached opponent (Fresno State) in the LA Bowl without either of their coordinators: Eric Morris and Brian Ward left WSU for other gigs prior to the game.

While we didn't expect such a lopsided result, the 29-6 loss itself was easy to see coming.

Most unexpected result: Utah

Of all the possible scenarios in all the games, the Utes getting blown out of the Rose Bowl was not one we considered. But a close affair turned lopsided in the third quarter after quarterback Cam Rising left with an injury and Penn State struck with two long touchdowns.

The 35-21 loss was Utah's fourth of the season and its largest margin-of-defeat (in a non-COVID year) since the Alamo Bowl (against Texas) at the close of 2019.

Worst best trash talk: Utah president Taylor Randall

Rarely do university presidents ever engage in trash-talking, but Randall went there during a pep rally. He recounted Penn State's all-time results against USC in the Rose Bowl, then offered the following comment:

"So in the last 100 years they've lost three times to the Trojans and we've beat them twice in the last 48 days. Maybe that's why USC wants to join the Big Ten."

Best clutch performance: Pac-12 officials

Assigned to work the semifinal showdown between Ohio State and Georgia, the conference sent an all-star officiating crew to Atlanta with Chris Coyte as the referee.

How did they fare? The website Football Zebras, which tracks officiating at the NCAA and NFL levels, offered the following summary:

"This Pac-12 (crew) worked an exemplary game. Multiple close calls and crucial judgments, but each was handled efficiently and accurately …

"Overall, what a great game for the crew to finish their season on. Replay only intervened when necessary.

"The teams decided the outcome and the officials maintained order, and did what was best for the game."

Best perspective: The 2023 backdrop

The Pac-12's on-field resurgence should continue into next season with a quality lineup of head coaches and an unprecedented cast of returning quarterbacks.

Not since the early years of the 2010s, in fact, has the conference been as well positioned for success. We expect at least five teams to crack the AP top-25 preseason poll, with as many as three (USC, Washington and Oregon) in the top 10.

Whether the Pac-12 will capitalize on the opportunity, we cannot say. But bank on this: 2023 won't be boring.

Our Pac-12 all-bowl team …

Offense

QB: USC's Caleb Williams
TB: Washington's Wayne Taulapapa
TB: Oregon's Bucky Irving
WR: USC's Brenden Rice
WR: Oregon State's Silas Bolden
WR: UCLA's Kam Brown
TE: Oregon's Terrance Ferguson
OL: Oregon State's Jake Levengood
OL: Washington's Roger Rosengarten
OL: UCLA's Atonio Mafi
OL: Utah's Keaton Bills
OL: Washington's Corey Luciano
OL: Oregon State's Brandon Kipper

Defense

Edge: Washington State's Quinn Roff
DL: UCLA's Jay Toia
DL: Oregon's Brandon Dorlus
Edge: Washington's Bralen Trice
LB: UCLA's Darius Muasau
LB: Oregon State's Kyrei Fisher-Morris
LB: Utah's Lander Barton
DB: Oregon's Trikweze Bridges
DB: Oregon State's Jaden Robinson
DB: USC's Mekhi Blackmon
DB: Washington's Jordan Perryman

Special Teams

K: Washington's Peyton Henry
P: Oregon State's Luke Loecher
RS: Oregon's Bucky Irving
ST: Oregon State's Jack Colletto

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Jon Wilner
Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.

Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

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