BERKELEY, Calif. – Welcome to the golden age of Pac-12 wide receivers. Never before has a collection of so many dominant pass catchers been assembled in the conference at one time.
Consider that junior Robert Woods needs five catches to set the new USC record for career receptions, a mark his sophomore teammate Marqise Lee is currently on pace to break next season.
Marquess Wilson of Washington State could also become his school’s leader in career grabs, again needing just three seasons to do so.
Arizona sophomore Austin Hill has exploded onto the scene, ranking 14th nationally in receiving yards per game and 15th in receptions per game.
Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks have reenergized the Oregon State offense, leading the surprising Beavers into the top 10 of the BCS, but seem like afterthoughts in the race for first-team all-conference recognition.
And then there is Keenan Allen. With seven catches Saturday, he would pass Geoff McArthur to establish himself as the most productive receiver in California history, needing only 32 games to set the record.
Allen has done so with a cast of quarterbacks that have ranged somewhere between occasionally competent game managers to totally unqualified frauds. He has done so with defenses devoting their focus to limiting his damage.
He has done so because Allen’s athleticism is simply remarkable, which should all but guarantee his place in the first round of the next NFL draft. Compared to his fellow third-year standouts Woods and Wilson, he is clearly the superior physical talent.
While Wilson thrives most from his leaping and acceleration, Woods his work ethic and precision route running, Allen is the model of the modern receiver at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, capable of attacking the defense at all three levels.
It was evident from the moment he set foot on campus.
“It’s very interesting because me and Keenan were roommates his first camp. I didn’t know a lot about the kid because I never really know the recruits coming in, and I have been here for a lot of classes,” redshirt senior linebacker Robert Mullins said.
“They ran a screen play to him, and he must have shook three guys, he broke a tackle, and I think he scored. We were doing a clutch drill, a two-minute drill. He looked like the best guy out there and that was his first camp. That was the moment where I saw how good this kid could actually be.”
And yet, Allen’s remarkable talent hasn’t been able to lift the Golden Bears out of their malaise, posting a 15-17 record. His 166 yards at Washington State last week were the most he has had in a win, third-most in his college career.
His other top performances – a three-game stretch where he 197, 170, and 160 yards last season at Washington, at Oregon, and versus USC – came in contests Cal lost by a total of 57 points.
That is what makes Saturday against Stanford so vital for Allen, what could mean the difference between being a wildly-productive player who took those skills to the next level and a legend.
He has never lifted the Axe, never beaten a top team. He can remedy both in the Big Game, especially if he delivers a performance for the ages, one that does more than set a career record but lift Cal to victory over its rival.
What is the signature moment of his time in college, especially in contrast to the other stars that came into the conference in 2010? Wilson has been the lone bright spot for one of the most dismal programs in major college football. Woods set a Pac-12 single-season record for receptions, has a 10-win season to his credit, and delivered dominant efforts in wins over Notre Dame and UCLA.
And Allen, is he going to be remembered as a player that put up terrific stats and went onto the NFL, or the man who wrested the Axe back from Stanford? Can he be the one that put Cal on his back and carried them to that Big Game victory, to greater success beyond that?
Rivalry games are unique in that regard, with the power to almost single-handedly redefine the way someone is remembered.
John Cooper had terrific success at Ohio State, but couldn’t beat Michigan. The pummeling Mack Brown has taken in multiple Red River Shootouts has put his future in question. Peyton Manning could never get past Florida.
Matt Leinart will always have fourth-and-nine in South Bend, Cam Newton the comeback at Alabama, Kevin Moen bowling over that Stanford trombone player at the end of The Play.
On the 30th anniversary of the most legendary moment in the Cal-Stanford rivalry, “the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football,” Allen will have his chance to add to make his mark and create a legacy to set himself apart.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.