2000: The Win Over New Mexico
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 osubeavers.com is recapping that season with a series of stories this fall.
By Kip Carlson
The first week of September, 2000, Offspring Magazine published its view of the nation's top 100 public school systems; Corvallis, Eugene and Ashland were on the list, which did not rank the districts in order.
While those districts earned an "A," the grade for Oregon State's football team in its season-opening 21-19 win over Eastern Washington was more like a "D": the Beavers passed, but barely.
The rainy opener did have its bright spots, including Ken Simonton setting Oregon State's career rushing record, finishing the game with 2,714 career yards after workhorsing it for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 40 carries. Afterward, Simonton had been missing from the group of Beavers meeting the media.
As OSU started preparation for its second game of the season, at New Mexico, Simonton explained his postgame absence to reporters in the weekly Tuesday media session: those 40 carries left his legs cramping to the point he couldn't climb the stairs to the interview area in Valley Football Center after the win.
"My groin and stuff were so tight, I was like, 'No way I'm going up there," Simonton said. "Couldn't do it. For real."
Three days after the game, Simonton echoed what other Beavers had said in its immediate aftermath.
"We were flat that week in practice," Simonton said. "We just didn't have the intensity we needed. We didn't show up right Saturday. There will be a lot more intensity this week in practice."
Oregon State was still looking for ways to take some of the load off Simonton. Said OSU offensive coordinator Tim Lappano: "We just can't do that – we can't give Kenny the ball 40 times a game. He won't make it halfway through the season."
A few more carries for backups Patrick McCall and Antonio Battle were in order, but the Beavers also needed to find more productivity in their passing game than they had against Eastern Washington. The term "barely passed" against Eastern Washington could be taken in more ways than one.
OSU struggled to move the ball through the air against the Division I-AA Eagles as quarterback Jonathan Smith had an off day, going 13-for-29 for 132 yards with two interceptions.
"He had a bad game," OSU head coach Dennis Erickson said. "Quarterbacks have bad games. It's only one game. I've seen him play awfully well."
Smith said he critiqued himself harder than anyone and knew how much pressure he was putting on himself to perform well.
"All of this is hard to get away from because everyone wants to talk about it," Smith told reporters at the interview session. "But we didn't lose the game, and that makes you feel better. The goal is always to win the game, and we did."
While Smith's position was secure even after a rough day, there was a switch on the offensive depth chart as sophomore Shawn Kintner moved ahead of highly touted senior transfer Chad Johnson at split end.
"It was a rude awakening for Chad, which I knew it was going to be like it is for every junior college player," Erickson said. "Chad will get better and better. I look for him to have a good week of practice and play well on Saturday."
The Beavers would be looking to improve against a New Mexico squad that had its own struggles. The Lobos, under third-year head coach Rocky Long, were 0-2 after losing to Texas Tech 24-3 and Boise State 31-14.
Long, who had been OSU's defensive coordinator from 1991-95, would offer up an unpredictable defense that might attack from anywhere at any time.
"They like to play some man coverage and bring a lot of people," Smith said. "They're a real aggressive, attacking style of defense … If they're attacking like that, they'll be susceptible to giving up the big play. Hopefully we can take shots at a couple of big plays."
As the staffs of presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore squabbled over the terms of their series of debates leading up to November's election, the Lobos were trying to reach a decision on their starting quarterback after scoring just 17 points in two games. Against Boise State, backup Rudy Caamano came in and led the Lobos on two long drives and both he and Jeremy Denson would both likely play against OSU.
For OSU linebacker Darnell Robinson, who was guiding New Mexico's offense wouldn't matter if the Beavers executed their defense.
"Play technique, do our assignments and play with effort," Robinson said. "Those are the three things we build on as a defense, and if we continue to do that we'll come out and play well. Defense is about making plays and playing your assignments.
"If everybody does what they're supposed to do, everything will take care of itself."
The Beavers would likely still be without linebacker James Allen due to injury, but senior linebacker Tevita Moala would likely see limited action in his return from a knee injury suffered in spring football.
Oregon State would be going for its 12th straight non-conference regular-season win. New Mexico had designated the game as "Operation Sellout" and almost succeeded as 30,830 fans were in 31,218-seat University Stadium when it kicked off at 6 p.m. on an 88-degree evening.
The weather may have been a turnaround from the previous Saturday, but the way the Beavers began the game was similar to how they'd sputtered past Eastern Washington in the drizzle.
After OSU forced New Mexico to punt, the Beavers' Ricky Walker had the ball knocked out of his hands on the return and the Lobos recovered at the OSU 20-yard line. Two plays later, Caamano rolled right, then passed back across field to Holmon Wiggins for 19 yards, a touchdown, and a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.
Oregon State tied the game later in the first quarter, set up by another turnover. UNM tried a reverse pass but wide receiver Larry Davis found himself nose-to-nose with OSU defensive end DeLawrence Grant, who jarred the ball loose and Robinson recovered the fumble at the Beaver 36. McCall, spelling Simonton, kept the drive alive in a big way when, on third-and-two from the New Mexico 43, he broke loose for 42 yards to the 1. Simonton carried in from there and it was 7-7 with 4:10 left in the opening period.
The Beavers' presidential namesakes bookending the defensive line continued to do the job in the second quarter. Midway through the period a Caamano screen pass was picked off by defensive end LaDairis Jackson, who returned it 32 yards for a score and a 14-7 lead.
By the end of the half, New Mexico had struck back in a big way.
First, Caamano and Davis connected on a 19-yard scoring pass to tie the game 14-14 just 47 seconds before halftime. The Lobos forced a Beaver punt and Mike Fessler's kick was blocked by Stephen Persley, who picked up the ball and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown; the point-after kick was no good but UNM led 20-14 with 23 seconds left in the first half.
That would be it for the Lobos' offense.
"They were stacking the line all day," Caamano said of the Beavers. "Our plan was to run play-action (passes) and get a few big plays. The second half, we just didn't get it done."
New Mexico wouldn't score again, finishing the game with just 172 yards total offense and eight first downs, only two of those coming in the second half. The Lobos were 0-for-13 on third-down conversions for the game. The question was whether the Beavers would be able to muster enough offense to overcome the halftime deficit.
Oregon State came up empty in the third quarter and still trailed 20-14 going into the final period. The Beavers began putting things together, driving 65 yards in nine plays – Simonton carrying five times for 50 of those yards – and scoring on a Smith-to-T.J. Houshmandzadeh pass that covered the final nine yards. Ryan Cesca's kick was true to give OSU a 21-20 lead with 11:37 to play.
"We need a play, he's there," Houshmandzadeh said of Simonton. "We know when we need a play we can go to him and get it."
As the fourth quarter ticked away, Oregon State's offensive line wore down the New Mexico defense and the Beavers controlled the ball but were still clinging to that one-point advantage. With 1:19 left, OSU faced fourth-and-1 from the Lobo 43. Erickson elected to go for it and sent Simonton into the line; on an earlier fourth-and-1, UNM had stacked up Simonton for no gain.
Not this time. Simonton scooted through the line and raced past the Lobo defensive backs for the touchdown, putting OSU up 28-20 with 1:12 left.
"We just knew we had to get a first down," Simonton said. "We weren't really expecting a big play and maybe that's why it happened. We just knew we had to get a first down and keep the clock running and we knew that would have been it."
Down to its final chance, New Mexico drove to the Oregon State 39 in the final minute but Keith Heyward-Johnson picked off Caamano with 20 seconds left to seal the 28-20 victory.
"We have any more like this and my hair will turn white," Erickson said of the back-to-back tight wins. "I haven't gone for it on fourth-and-1 twice in one game.
"I think there was an improvement in the second half. The first half, we gave them points, had a punt blocked, we fumbled a punt and the kicking game killed us. In the second half, we were in a situation of being on the road and behind and I think we came out and played better football."
Simonton was again the key to Oregon State's offense, rushing for 184 yards and two touchdowns but on 30 carries, down from his 40 the week before. McCall finished with nine carries for 58 yards and Battle had a carry for five yards as the Beavers spread the rushing game around a bit more.
"We know we can run the ball," Simonton said. "If we do things the way we're coached, we know we can pass the ball and run the ball."
OSU finished with 300 total yards, 222 of those on the ground. Smith finished 12-for-28 passing for 78 yards and a touchdown; he was sacked five times and victimized by a number of dropped passes. Houshmandzadeh led OSU with five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown while McCall had three catches for five yards.
"Our receivers are not playing consistently," Erickson said. "Seventy-eight yards is not much production. It's terrible. We just are not executing, and the frustrating thing is that we are basically playing with the same guys we had a year ago."
Defensively for the Beavers, Robinson had eight tackles, a quarterback sack and a pass breakup; Jackson had a sack to go with his interception return for a touchdown and linebacker Nick Barnett had eight tackles. In his return to action, Moala had three tackles, including one for lost yardage.
Two weeks into the season, it had been two tough contests – but two wins. Oregon State was off to a 2-0 start for the third straight season, noteworthy in that before that string, you had to go back to 1985 to find a Beaver team that started 2-0.
OSU now had a bye week to catch its breath before taking on San Diego State at Reser Stadium on September 23.
"We're making too many mistakes on offense," Erickson said. "This week, we are going back to basics. It will be like spring football for us."