LAS VEGAS – The Pac-12 Conference was founded in 1915 and for more than a century, the “Conference of Champions” has featured fierce rivalry games and electrifying late-night finishes that few can explain, all set against a backdrop of sparkling Western sunsets.
On Friday at Allegiant Stadium here, the sun set one final time on the conference’s storied football history in a riveting Pac-12 Championship Game. After 107 years of Pac-12 football, two of the league’s founding member schools – Oregon and Washington – closed the book on a conference steeped in gridiron tradition.
The two bitter Pacific Northwest rivals, whose head-to-head matchups are nicknamed the Border War, faced off with a College Football Playoff berth on the line, each with a Heisman Trophy candidate behind center.
The finale couldn’t have been written better for Pac-12 football, and those who love storybook endings were treated to a picture-perfect conclusion.
After surrendering a 17-point lead, the Huskies recovered late in the third quarter to score 14 unanswered points and hold off the Ducks in a remarkable 34-31 win. With it, they completed the first 13-0 season in Pac-12 history.
And as if to tie a bow on it all, the Pac-12’s first champion in 1916 emerged as its last winner in 2023: the Washington Huskies.
“It’s just the historic tradition of what this conference has done,” Washington coach Kalen DeBoer said of the sense of nostalgia the league’s final game brought. “The great teams throughout all the years. We’ve had many of them at UW. Conference championships, national championships. And so, it is sad to see it happen and for that to be the last football game there.”
The conference has long had a reputation for electrifying moments and inexplicable plays, including “The Play,” when California returner Kevin Moen, after several Cal laterals, ran through Stanford’s band into the end zone after time expired to beat the Cardinal in their 1982 rivalry game.
More recently, Arizona State beat USC on a last-second Hail Mary – dubbed the “Jael Mary” because receiver Jaelen Strong caught the 46-yard pass from ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici – to upset USC in 2014.
Fittingly, history was made again in the Pac-12’s final chapter in football as the matchup featured two top-five ranked teams for the first time in nearly 50 years.
And without a 2021 rule change, the Washington-Oregon matchup would never have happened. For the first 11 years of the Pac-12 championship, the winners of the North and South divisions were featured in the title game. Two years ago, that changed, so that the two best teams in the conference would earn a berth.
That is a decision that Pac-12 officials will look back on for quite some time, because the top-5 matchup most certainly did happen – and it produced an apt farewell.
“I’m so blessed and grateful to play in this conference,” Oregon linebacker Jeffrey Bassa said postgame. “It is full of amazing players. I feel we’re a very slept-on conference. There’s great football here on the West Coast. The great teams, the history behind all those games. With all these rivalries being shut down, with all these schools leaving for different conferences, I’m so blessed and grateful to be a part of this history.”
The Pac-12 Championship Game has rarely featured a CFP contender, let alone two as Friday’s did, and none have come close to matching the energy of the 2023 edition. A raucous sellout crowd featuring two loyal fanbases created a tremendous atmosphere. The sea of purple and yellow witnessed countless momentum swings in a rematch from October.
Washington quarterback Michael Penix and Oregon signal caller Bo Nix traded punches all night long, but in the end it was Penix who made the deep-ball throws that pushed Washington down the field time and time again. Washington also had tremendous production out of its run game, with Dillon Johnson rushing 152 yards and two scores.
The Huskies were nearly 10-point underdogs coming in despite being undefeated, and they took it personally.
“It was kind of crazy just seeing it because, like, who do we play after Oregon? We played one of the best teams in Arizona, we played Utah,” said Huskies linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio. “All these teams gave us their best punch. I thought it was super disrespectful just to see how hard we work. We could have lost those games. Yeah, I mean, we do want to win those games by 50, but a win is a win. They’re all hard to get. This is the best conference in the United States for a reason.”
In its final season of football, the Pac-12 was arguably the deepest it has ever been, a simultaneously wonderful yet painful reality. At one point this season, eight teams in the conference were ranked among the top 25 in the nation, making Washington’s clean slate all the more impressive. The Huskies recorded five victories against top-25 opponents.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the country that went through what we went through,” DeBoer said. “We won four games against four top teams in November and now in December. That’s tough to do. We did it at home and we did it on the road.”
This year represents just the third time a team from the Pac-12 will qualify for the CFP. Washington’s win ensures that the Pac-12 name will live on for a few more weeks, as the Huskies look to bring the conference its one and only CFP title as the No. 2 seed.
The program wants to do right by its original home.
“We played a lot of great teams in this conference,” said Penix, who added that he’s looking forward to what the future holds for the Huskies. “We’re just super blessed to be a part of it.”
Those who hold the Pac-12 dear want to make sure to keep its legacy alive for years to come.
“There’s just been so many big games, so many great players that have stepped on the football field,” DeBoer said. “I vow to make sure that the guys that won championships for us and had those great individual and team efforts, that we’ll always remember and make sure we celebrate those teams that did great things.
“They got us to have the program that we have today.”
And that’s a Huskies program that will be remembered as the last champion of the Conference of Champions.