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2000: The Win Over EWU

Oct 2, 2020

This fall marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest football seasons in Oregon State history. The 2000 Beavers tied for the Pacific 10 conference championship and defeated Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl, finishing with an 11-1 record and ranked in the top five in the country. That OSU team is among the 2020 inductees into the Oregon State Sports Hall of Fame, and is recapping that season with a series of stories this fall.
By Kip Carlson
In late August, 2000, the Oregon State Daily Barometer published its "Student Life" issue, looking ahead to the 2000-01 academic year. The Forum opinion page introduced its "Vs." feature: one writer arguing one side of a topic and another writer the other.
The initial installment was on "The Heart of the Valley explained and exploited." The "pro" writer's column began: "I love Corvallis. I mean, could you ask for more from a small town?" The counterpoint began: "Corvallis bugs the crap out of me. I mean, did you ever see such a waste of potential?"
The first one was written by Jake Ten Pas, the second by Ekaj Sap Net – described as Ten Pas' "imaginary evil twin."
With football season approaching, OSU fans were wondering which direction another local entity with two possible identities might take. The headline atop the Sports section in the August 27 Corvallis Gazette-Times spelled it out pretty clearly:
"Contender or Pretender?"
That was the question sportswriters, sportscasters and fans up and down the West Coast had about Oregon State football as the Beavers' season-opener neared. Was OSU's winning season in 1999 the start of a new era? Or would Oregon State revert to the form shown in 28 straight losing seasons prior to that?
"One year doesn't make a program," said OSU head coach Dennis Erickson, who led the Beavers to that long-sought winning season in his first year. "We don't want to be a fly-by-night outfit; we've got to develop some consistency. Obviously people are going to be looking for that from this program, and nobody will take us lightly.
"Once you get to a point where you've won – whatever goal you have – once you reach it, it's probably harder to stay there than get there. It's going to be harder for us. We might have a better team and not win as many games."
The story appeared as the Beavers began preparing for the September 2 opener against Eastern Washington at Reser Stadium. Over 14,000 season tickets had been sold, OSU was getting ready to break ground on an indoor practice facility and there was a level of excitement around Beaver football that hadn't been seen since the late 1960s.
"There's no question, as far as our boosters, fans and coaches in the state, that winning has been an extremely positive thing," Erickson told the G-T. "The impact last season had – financially, enrollment-wise, all those things – has been tremendous."
The nation's football publications and broadcasts had weighed in with their preseason predictions for the Pacific 10, putting the Beavers anywhere from fifth to eighth place. The Gazette-Times' football writers offered their prognostications during the week, with Kevin Hampton picking OSU for fourth place; Brooks Hatch went with game-by-game picks resulting an 8-3 overall record, a 5-3 Pac-10 mark, and a season-ending win over Oregon earning a spot in the Sun Bowl.
Reason for optimism included the returns of most of a fast, ferocious defense; a two-time 1,000-yard rusher in Ken Simonton; and undersized but heady starting quarterback Jonathan Smith.
"We're trying to take it to another level this year," Simonton told the Salem Statesman-Journal. "We got the respect that some of the guys thought we could get when we signed to come here. We raised a few eyebrows."
Simonton, who needed just 39 yards to become the Beavers' all-time career rushing leader, had already caught the eye of Dan Cozzetto, OSU's new running backs coach: "He's an exceptional runner. He has an outstanding ability to change directions, and he has great patience."
Eastern Washington, a Division I-AA school, had plenty of returning firepower of its own: 19 starters from a 7-4 team in 1999. There were also a slew of connections between the coaching staffs, including Eagles head coach Paul Wulff having played for Erickson at Washington State. At WSU, Wulff was a teammate of OSU assistant coach Jim Michalczik and was later a groomsman in his wedding. OSU assistant coach Gregg Smith coached both while a member of Erickson's WSU staff.
"I'm a friend," Michalczik told the Gazette-Times. "But coach Erickson was Paul's coach, and so was coach Smith. So anytime the son comes back to take on the dad in a game of basketball or something, he wants to win."
Beaver fans had reason to be wary of lower-division competition: OSU had lost to Grambling in 1975, Idaho in 1984 and Montana in 1996. Even 1999's winning season opened with a 48-41 scare from Georgia Southern.
"The Division I-AA teams aren't bad," Erickson said. "They think they can win, and it's been done. It can happen. Oregon State knows that."
OSU would likely be without starting linebackers Tevita Moala and James Allen due to injuries, along with three wide receivers who had been suspended for the season's first three games due to their involvement with an altercation over the summer. Chad Johnson, the Beavers' touted recruit at that position, was confident he could help take up the slack there.
"I don't mean to sound cocky, but I know what I'm capable of doing," Johnson told reporters. "I don't need to lie. I'm uncoverable." Overhearing that as he walked past, Erickson interjected, "You're getting a lot of publicity for a guy who's never caught a pass." Erickson said Johnson still had things to learn, "but he'll be exciting, and he'll get better as the year goes on. He's the real deal."
The week of the game, the Gazette-Times had a front-page story on Oregon State's new research vessel, the 54-foot, $500,000 Elakha, which would be based at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Another story noted the U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments were getting ready to ask Congress for $1.2 billion to repair damage from recent wildfires and take steps to prevent future blazes.
A crowd of about 30,000 was expected for the 3:30 p.m. opener; Reser Stadium's capacity for the season would be 35,362 as tarps remained over several rows in the east grandstand between the students section in the lower rows and the reserved seats above them. Friday afternoon, crews were still busy getting the stadium ready.
"It's really crazy right now," OSU head of athletic maintenance Jess Lewis – who had starred in wrestling and football for the Beavers in the late 1960s – told the G-T. "We've been doing a lot of signs and a lot of tables. Football's an event anymore. We've got a lot of people coming to it and a lot of people sponsoring it, so we're improving the facility, brightening it up and painting it and cleaning."
When the game kicked off, Eastern Washington would have three offensive linemen making their first career starts due to preseason injuries. That was a concern for Wulff, noting OSU's strength was its defense.
"They return eight starters and their team speed, especially in the front seven, is exceptional, something we haven't seen," Wulff said. "Hopefully our kids will get adjusted to that speed quickly. DeLawrence Grant creates a lot of problems. He's probably one of the premier defensive ends in the Pac-10.
"Their whole secondary creates some problems because of their coverage and their ability to play physical. Their speed at linebacker and ability to run downhill and make plays is a concern."
Saturday morning, the Gazette-Times published a summary of college football's new rules. Foremost was a change in intentional grounding: quarterbacks would be able to throw the ball away without penalty if they were outside the pocket. Also, defensive players would now be penalized for abrupt movements designed to intentionally lure offensive players into moving before the snap.
By the 3:30 p.m. kickoff, it was 60 degrees and skies over Reser Stadium were overcast with showers dousing a crowd of 30,782.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Beavers appeared to have a chance at opening the scoring when a snap went over Eagle punter Nick Reynolds' head; he was able to get off a weak kick and OSU lineman Ryan Atkinson carried the ball to the EWU 5. However, an offside penalty nullified the play and Eastern went on to take a 3-0 lead on Troy Griggs' 44-yard field goal.
Oregon State answered with a drive that included Simonton's record-setting carry, a 21-yard burst up the middle that pushed him ahead of Dave Schilling on the Beavers' all-time career rushing list and earned a standing ovation; Schilling had rushed for 2,552 yards from 1969-71. A few carries later, Simonton scored on a three-yard run, Cesca's kick put the Beavers up 7-3 and it seemed OSU might be getting on track as the half ended.
To start the third quarter, Smith hit Houshmandzadeh with a 15-yard pass to midfield. Two plays later, Smith's backwards pass to Houshmandzadeh hit the turf and Eastern's Claude Jean-Baptiste returned the ball to the OSU 35. The Beavers forced a punt, but Smith overthrew Houshmandzadeh deep in OSU territory and Julian Williams intercepted, setting up Grigg's 22-yard field goal that made it 7-6.
OSU got it together on its next possession. Smith hit Seth Trimmer for 15 yards and tight end Martin Maurer for 17 more; the next play was the 11th of the drive and Simonton carried for the sixth time on it, going the final 14 yards for a 14-6 lead.
Moments later, the Beavers had a chance to widen the lead when defensive end LaDairis Jackson walloped Eagle running back Jovan Griffth to force a fumble and Beaver linebacker Darnell Robinson hopped on it at the EWU 8. The joy didn't last long, as two plays later Smith was picked off by Ole Oleson at the 8; he returned it 90 yards before being chased down by Houshmandzadeh at the Beaver 2.
Maurer said afterward that may have been the play of the game: "If that guy gets in the end zone, it's just a different thing – the momentum. By him running him down, that fired up the defense a little bit more and they stopped that two-point conversion."
Indeed, Eastern's Jesse Chatman scored on a two-yard plunge and the Eagles went for two and the tie. The Beavers stopped the attempt but a pass interference penalty gave EWU another; this time Chatman was stuffed to preserve OSU's 14-12 lead with 3:48 left in the third quarter.
Oregon State managed another drive in the fourth quarter, Simonton capping it with his third touchdown of the day on another 14-yard run with 4:26 left. The Beavers led 21-12 but weren't safe yet.
Eastern put together its only sustained drive of the day, quarterback Fred Salanoa hitting Lance Ballew for 24 yards and Joe Levens for 31 before carrying the final 8 yards himself. The touchdown got the Eagles within 21-19 with 3:16 to go in the game.
After taking the kickoff, the Beavers maintained possession until just four seconds remained as Fessler punted the ball away. Finally, the clock ran out and OSU had escaped with a 21-19 victory.
"We didn't play very well, plain and simple," Erickson told reporters. "We were lucky to win. We play like that in the Pac-10 and we're not going to win many games."
In addition to their four turnovers, the Beavers had been penalized 12 times for 94 yards, including ones that short-circuited drives that appeared headed for at least field goals. Another flag prolonged an EWU possession that resulted in a field goal.
Oregon State did outgain Eastern 326-197, with 222 of those Beaver yards coming on the ground. Simonton finished with 40 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
"Kenny's a player," Maurer said. "It doesn't matter what game, it doesn't matter where you are. It doesn't matter if you're in a park, playing two-on-two, whatever it is, he's going to come ready to play. He's going to bring the lunch pail, blue collar, and handle his job and get the job done."
Erickson felt OSU had handed Simonton more of the job than it should have.
"Here's the situation that I've talked about early this year: that we've got to keep the pressure off Kenny and not have him carry 40 times a game," Erickson said. "Well, what happened? He carried 40 times a game and he ended  up carrying it to help us win at the end. We've got to use our other weapons and we've got to execute at our other positions so that he does not have to do that."
Maurer finished with a team-high 61 receiving yards on five catches while Houshmandzadeh had six receptions for 54 yards. Smith was 13-for-29 passing with two interceptions, the first breaking a string of 156 passes without being picked off.
"Obviously I didn't play well at all," Smith said. "I wasn't too disappointed in my decision making, I thought I made good decisions; (but) did not throw the ball accurately. All day.
"From the first snap to the last one, it was just inaccuracy. I had good time, a lot of times guys were open, I just flat-out missed them."
Robinson had 12 tackles – two for lost yardage, including a quarterback sack – plus a fumble recovery and a pass breakup to lead a Beaver defense that limited the Eagles to 58 yards rushing.
"They played their butts off," Maurer said. "The offense kept the defense out there too long."
Maurer diagnosed the Beavers' biggest difficulty: "We obviously weren't ready to play. I thought we practiced hard, everybody thought we had a good camp, we thought we came out and practiced this week. Obviously we didn't.
"Maybe we fooled ourselves and thought we worked hard enough and obviously we didn't. That should not happen out there and it will not happen around here."
Wrote Brooks Hatch of the Gazette-Times: "Win and advance. Win and advance. You can call college football autumn madness because when all is said and done the race to the Rose Bowl or any other bowl is nothing more than an 11-game NCAA tournament.
"Somewhere along the line there's going to be a stinker or two, but if you somehow prevail and keep moving forward even the stench of a rancid performance will disappear in a few weeks."
The way the Beavers had opened the 2000 season, they had to hope that would be the case.
NEXT: Back to work.