- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's a collection of great moments/storylines from the 2012 Pac-12 season in no particular order:
Clutch catches: A couple from Arizona wide receivers come to mind. There was Austin Hill laying out in the season opener against Toledo for a 30-yard touchdown -- quite possibly the best catch in the Pac-12 this season -- and Tyler Slavin's snag in the New Mexico Bowl. Zach Ertz's haul-in against Oregon was as clutch as it gets.
Dunn and done: It was a record-setting year for Utah's All-American kick returner Reggie Dunn. He set the NCAA single-season record with four 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns. He set the NCAA mark for career 100-yard kickoff returns with five, the single-game 100-yard kickoff return record with two and the kick return average in a game at 74.0. He also tied the NCAA record for kick return touchdowns in a game from any distance with two. His performance prompted one of the best quotes of the year from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "I can't believe they kicked to him," Whittingham said after the Colorado game.
Having their moment: Colorado is going to get mentioned a lot in this post -- mostly because of what others did to it. But in a season loaded with disappointments, it was a gritty fourth-quarter performance that stands out as a highlight for the Buffs. Trailing 31-14 in the final frame, Colorado outscored the Washington State Cougars 21-3 in the final 7:06 for their only win of the season, a 35-34 victory in Pullman, Wash.
The other side of Colorado: Feeling good after reading that, Buffs fans? Here comes the rub. Pac-12 teams exploded against Colorado this year with several record-setting performances. We've already mentioned Dunn getting one of his kickoff return TDs against the Buffs. But before that, Matt Barkley and Robert Woods had record-setting days against Colorado. Barkley threw six touchdowns and completed 95 percent of his passes (19 of 20), giving him the Pac-12 career touchdown record. Woods caught eight balls to set the USC career receptions record and he became the first USC player to have four touchdown catches in one game. A couple of weeks later, Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey ran for a league-record 366 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 14.6 yards per carry. In conference games, Colorado was outscored, on average, 49-17.
Clutch kicks: In what was a very off year for Pac-12 kickers, a few key moments stand out: Ka'imi Fairbairn's 33-yard game winner lifted the Bruins to a 45-43 win at Arizona State; Jordan Williamson's 37-yarder in overtime downed Oregon and changed the entire landscape of college football; and WSU's Andrew Furney was oh-so-money in the Apple Cup, drilling a 45-yarder to tie the game in the closing minutes and then hitting a 27-yarder in overtime.
UW shockers: For as shocking as the Apple Cup demise was for the Huskies, they also provided a couple of big shockers of their own, knocking off a pair of top-10 teams. A week after Stanford stunned USC (not as stunning as it was at the time), Washington held the No. 8 Cardinal without an offensive touchdown in a 17-13 home win. A month later -- to the day -- it snapped No. 7 Oregon State's six-game winning streak, also at the Clink.
SoCal slugfest: Before the season, we all looked to the Oregon-USC game as the first of two that would determine the conference championship. As it turned out, neither team even reached the title game. But the game itself didn't disappoint. It was a 62-51 thrill ride in which Kenjon Barner rushed for 321 yards and four touchdowns, Barkley threw for 484 yards and five scores and the two schools gained 1,345 yards of total offense between them.
Quarterback controversies: Midseason switches and turnover at the position seemed like a constant throughout the Pac-12. Only four schools -- Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington -- started the same quarterback in every game this season. Injury caused changes at Arizona, Cal, Oregon State, USC and Utah, while competitions/switches happened at Washington State, Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado. In the end, it was a good move for Stanford -- which went on to win the Pac-12 title. At Oregon State, the competition is certainly wide open after the Alamo Bowl collapse. Colorado has some things to figure out with a new coaching staff and we'll see if Connor Halliday can hold on to the job next year.
Heisman shutout: The Pac-12 didn't have a finalist for the first time since 2008 -- despite strong seasons from Marqise Lee, Barner, Carey, Johnathan Franklin, etc. Barkley was the preseason favorite, but fizzled as USC imploded. Despite having the nation's top wide receiver and three of the four consensus All-American running backs, the Pac-12 was snubbed out of a trip to New York.
Stanford's staying power: Surely, 2012 was the year Stanford would come back to earth. No Andrew Luck, no Coby Fleener, no Jonathan Martin and David DeCastro. But behind a fierce defense, the Cardinal won the league title, Kevin Hogan is 5-0 as a starter at quarterback and the Cardinal won the Rose Bowl. Not bad for a rebuilding year.
Coaches are better than ever: Jim Mora, Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez all took their teams to bowl games in their first seasons. Mike Riley has his team back in the Top 25. David Shaw has won the coach of the year honor twice in two seasons. Chip Kelly is back. Sonny Dykes has an exciting offense. Mike MacIntyre has a history of rebuilding. The Pac-12 might have the hottest crop of coaches in the country. That's a very good thing.
2-0: There are many ways to judge the talent of a conference. BCS bowl games are the biggest litmus test. The Pac-12 went 4-4 in the bowl season, but won both of its BCS games: Stanford beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and Oregon thrashing Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. History judges the best of the best. And there was no doubt those two teams earned everything they got this year.