West Coast Offense: A (Im)Perfect Week 1 for the Pac-12

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PASADENA, Calif. — With UCLA trailing Texas A&M 38-10 at halftime of Sunday’s matchup at the Rose Bowl, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was not prepared to publicly write off the conference’s unblemished Week 1 record.

“This gave us a chance to research what kind of record they’ll set if they come back and win,” Scott said with a smile. “It would be one of the greatest comebacks in UCLA football history. We don’t have the answer to that yet.”

The deficit at the time was 28-0; a touchdown more than UCLA’s previous record, a 22-0 rally against Northwestern in 2005. And, after Texas A&M built the lead to 44-10, the ensuing comeback came just a point shy of the all-time FBS record, which Michigan State set in 2006.

With the Bruins roaring back for one of the most memorable wins in recent college football history, the Pac-12 closed a memorable weekend. Every team save Stanford was in action; all won to put the conference at 11-0.

There’s necessary context to the win-loss record. Plenty of Pac-12 squads played and brutalized overmatched opponents from the FCS, like Oregon over Southern Utah; Washington State over Montana State; and Arizona over Northern Arizona.

Meanwhile, Arizona State struggled with New Mexico State out of the Sun Belt. Oregon State came perilously close to falling to 0-2, trailing the Big Sky’s Portland State Vikings in the waning moments.

Defending conference champion Washington faced some light criticism for failing to beat Rutgers by 80. Chicken Littles abound in Los Angeles after USC beat a 2017 Cotton Bowl participant by 18.

Even UCLA, despite its history-making comeback, “an inch away from losing that game 10 times,” according to quarterback Josh Rosen.

Week 1 was far from perfect, and in no way an indicator of any BEST CONFERENCE! rhetoric. But 11-0 still isn’t bad.

The most impressive win contextually may have been Cal’s 35-30 defeat of North Carolina.

The Golden Bears were a consensus pick to finish last place in the Pac-12 North, as voted by media. Based on point tallies, Cal was 12-of-12 among its league brethren.

So, for Cal to trek across the country and beat an ACC program that was in contention for a conference crown each of the previous two seasons was tremendous start for the Justin Wilcox era.

It doesn’t necessarily mean Cal’s prepared to contend in the division, which Wilcox alluded to.

“We’re by no means a finished product,” Wilcox said, but added. “It’s nice to learn those lessons when you win.”

A Most Deserving Player of the Week

Awards are subjective, but you will not find a single objective to the Pac-12’s choice for the Special Teams Player of the Week. The nod went to USC long snapper Jake Olson, making his debut in the Trojans’ 49-31 defeat of Western Michigan.

Blind since his childhood as a result of retinoblastoma, Olson’s rare affliction didn’t deter him from his goals.

“It was always my dream to be at SC,” Olson said Tuesday.

He also dreamed of playing for the Trojans, a goal he brought to life in Week 1.

Olson won a spot on the Orange Lutheran High School varsity team his junior and senior seasons, a remarkable accomplishment in its own right. He said he was focused on maintaining his grades to be able to attend USC. Upon arriving on campus, former athletic director Pat Haden approached Olson with the possibility of joining the Trojan football team.

“I really started trying to put in [effort] at practice so that once I was there, I could make the team and maybe earn some playing time,” he said — with an emphasis on earn. “Just show everyone on the team that I belonged there.”

Olson’s selection as Week 1 Player of the Week, after delivering a perfect snap for USC’s seventh and final extra point of the afternoon, cements his place in Pac-12 history forever.

And with that exposure, Olson has an opportunity to positively impact the lives of others. Scout’s Ryan Abraham details one such instance.

There couldn’t be a more deserving recipient for accolades than Jake Olson.

Stanford-USC in the Decade Since

Saturday’s installment in the Stanford-USC rivalry — and make no mistake, according to both Clay Helton and David Shaw, it is a rivalry — marks 10 years since the most infamous upset in Pac-12 Conference history.

ESPN.com’s Kyle Bonagura produced an excellent retrospective from the perspective of such key figures as Richard Sherman; definitely a must-read.

It’s no longer the biggest upset in college football history; Howard’s defeat of UNLV last Saturday supplanted the Cardinal for No. 1. However, the long-term effects of Stanford’s 2007 win are still evident today.

In retrospect, it’s rather remarkable how important that outcome was in shaping the conference for the decade to come.┬áStanford finished 2007 4-8 and 5-7 the following campaign, but the groundwork was laid for the Cardinal to grow into title contenders.

Similarly, USC went on to two more conference championships after the 24-23 loss. The loss that truly marked the end of the Trojan dynasty came two seasons later in Autzen Stadium on Halloween night. Nevertheless, Stanford shook the foundation.

The Trojans went 10-3 in 2016, and it’s been widely heralded as the return of the program. The Cardinal finished 2016 10-3 and it was considered a disappointment. Certainly there’s contextual nuance beyond that: USC reaching win No. 10 by way of a Rose Bowl carries greater meaning than Stanford outlasting North Carolina at the Sun Bowl.

Still, USC has looked up at Stanford for almost a decade. From the infamous “What’s your deal” shouting match between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll in 2009, to the triple-overtime instant classic of 2011, and Christian McCaffrey’s one-man show in 2015, the rivalry’s produced its share of marquee moments — most of which went the Cardinal’s way.

With USC coming in the favorite to win this year’s Pac-12 championship, and Stanford relegated to No. 3 behind the Trojans and defending champion Washington, another changing-of-the-guard atmosphere exists; but only if USC can capitalize.

EARLY RIVALRY

You think of Rivalry Week in college football, and chances are your mind goes to Thanksgiving weekend. And you’d be correct, in most cases.

Two of the Pac-12’s rivalries will be complete almost three full months before Rivalry Week 2017, however, with Utah facing BYU in the 92nd edition of the Holy War.

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham noted because of the Pac-12 Conference schedule, Utah had few options for slotting the Cougars in. The league makes concessions for the historic Notre Dame-USC and Notre Dame Stanford rivalries, and gave Arizona State a similar OK to play the Fighting Irish in November 2014. Rice fit into Stanford’s schedule only in the final weekend last year.

Otherwise, the Pac-12 avoids scheduling late-season non-conference games.

Whittingham said although the intensity remains the same, preparation for a rivalry game against an opponent BYU’s caliber is different when played at this early point in the season.

Colorado was in Utah’s position a week ago, as it has been routinely; long before college football had a Rivalry Week. In fact, the first edition from 1893 was played in February. Desperate TV execs meddling with schedules for Sweeps, no doubt.

In Town on Business

UCLA returns to the scene of its historic comeback Saturday, hosting Hawaii at the Rose Bowl. For the Bruins, this home contest is all business — and for the Rainbow Warriors, too, so much so that head coach Nick Rolovich probably won’t be seen taking the TMZ Bus Tour of Hollywood.

It’s worth noting that Rolovich is probably the best Twitter follow among head coaches in all college football.