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2000: The Win Over USC

Oct 24, 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
As September, 2000, moved into its final week, Oregon State football was in at least somewhat familiar territory with a 3-0 record; the Beavers had opened with three non-conference wins for the second season in a row.
OSU was also acquainted with the upcoming turn its path would: a Pacific-10 opener against nationally ranked Southern California.
The previous autumn, the Beavers began the conference slate at 16th-ranked USC. A passel of errors putting them in a 37-7 hole after three quarters before they rallied to within 37-29 at the finish.
For Oregon State to be taken seriously, Corvallis Gazette-Times sportswriter Kevin Hampton opined, meant reversing results like that loss. After acknowledging the non-conference wins were steps toward a winning record and a bowl, Hampton wrote: "Yet the only way that OSU can truly establish itself as a power in the Pacific-10 Conference is to defeat Washington and USC, the traditional winners of the league.
"Win those games, and OSU gets the respect of the conference and the nation. Win those games and the Beavers are ranked. Win those games and the Beavers are suddenly candidates for a bowl game in San Diego or Pasadena.
"Lose, and you'd better get used to spending Christmas in Hawaii, touring the Silicon Valley or even singing carols to your neighbors here in Corvallis."
This time around the Trojans were ranked No. 8 in the nation after beating No. 22 Penn State, Colorado and San Jose State. And this time, the game would be at Reser Stadium. By Tuesday, reserved seats were sold out and the limited number of remaining general admission tickets were going fast.
With wins in seven of their last nine games – and eight of their last nine at home – Beaver football had become a hot ticket. And, after almost three decades in which seasons of three or fewer wins were the norm, crowds were eager to have a hand in more victories.
"I love the fans – it's the reason I came to Oregon State," linebacker Nick Barnett told the OSU Daily Barometer. "I was at the Arizona game (in 1998) for my recruiting trip and they had me committed. The fans out there keep us hyped because when we do a little something they cheer, they get us ready to play more."
The unbeaten Beavers were beginning to attract some notice. DeLawrence Grant was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against San Diego State and OSU gained 15 votes in the ESPN-USA Today coaches poll, good for 37th in that ranking; the Beavers didn't receive votes in the Associated Press media poll.
Another reason for the excitement was the Beavers' chance to end one of the biggest negative streaks they'd built up over the years: Oregon State hadn't beaten Southern California since OSU's "Giant Killers" knocked off No. 1 USC 3-0 in 1967 in Corvallis. Since then, the Beavers had dropped 26 in a row to the Trojans by an average of almost 28 points per loss.
"Over the years, they've had a better program than Oregon State," OSU head coach Dennis Erickson said. "It's unusual but it's happened. It's been the best program against the worst during the last 30 years."
As for opening the conference slate against a longtime nemesis ranked among the nation's top 10?
"You have to play them sometime, so you might as well start with them," Erickson said.  "It doesn't make any difference. I look at the Pac-10 schedule and I don't see anyone who isn't tough. It's unbelievable."
When fall classes began at Oregon State on Monday, September 25, the new faces in campus classrooms didn't just belong to freshmen and transfers: thanks to enrollment jumping by about 1,000 students to over 17,000, OSU had also hired a number of new tenure-track faculty. That included Teena Carnegie, a professional and technical writing instructor.
Carnegie was a longtime instructor but figured her first day on the new job would have her a bit nervous, but nothing like the first time she taught: "It was terrifying," Carnegie told the Gazette-Times. "It's like walking out onto a stage when you've never had stage experience. You think, 'Hey, this is fear.'"
That same day, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced its decision that "Kennewick Man," one of the oldest skeletons ever found in North America, should be given to the five indigenous American trips who claimed him as an ancestor.
OSU's Ken Simonton continued to lead the Pac-10 in rushing and was fourth nationally with an average of 158.3 yards per game, and that had Beaver offensive coordinator Tim Lappano figuring his squad would likely be looking at seven or eight Trojan defenders up front to stop the run.
"We're going to have to beat man coverage (on receivers), that's the bottom line," Lappano said. "We'll have to spread some people out and make plays in the passing game. What you have to do is give them a lot of multiple formations. You can't just play smash-mouth football in a phone booth or you're playing into their strength."
Aiding in that regard would be the returns of OSU wide receivers Robert Prescott, James Newson and Junior Adams, who had completed their three-game suspensions stemming from an off-campus altercation over the summer.
Wednesday, the Barometer noted the competition was heating up among state universities to be the parent institution of a four-year campus in Central Oregon; the state had allocated $7.2 million for the project and a decision on the matter wasn't expected until at least January.
"The main competition is the University of Oregon, who I think wanted to service Central Oregon, but really didn't take it too seriously until the dollars were on the table," Neil Bryant of OSU's Board of Advisors told the Barometer. "That got them very serious."
As the remaining $18 general admission tickets made their way across the Gill Coliseum ticket counters, Erickson and Oregon State athletic director Mitch Barnhart put out a plea for Beaver fans to make Reser Stadium rock.
"I want our fans to be passionate like they have in the past, like they were last year against California when we got close to that sixth win, and like they were against Arizona," Barnhart told OSU's weekly media luncheon. "There was great passion in the stadium those nights. I want there to be an enthusiasm for our kids and for our fans to play on every down of the game, just like we ask out kids to play every down of the game."
Erickson referred to the quiet of the previous Saturday but acknowledged that could have been because the 35-3 win over San Diego State was well in hand. Still, he said for the Beavers to really have a home-field advantage, the atmosphere needed to be like those 1999 games against Cal and Arizona every Saturday.
"We've got to make this a miserable place to play, and we're capable of doing that," Erickson said. "You look at the places where they don't lose very many games, and you can't hear. It's a big advantage, and hopefully we can get that this week."
A member of some past OSU crowds would be suited up for the Trojans: sophomore safety Troy Polamalu, who grew up in Tenmile, near Roseburg, and graduated from Douglas High. His cousin, Joe Polamalu, played for the Beavers in the 1980s but an uncle, Kennedy Pola, was an assistant coach at USC.
Many current Beavers from the Golden State had Trojan ties of their own. Quarterback Jonathan Smith was raised in Glendora, Calif., not far away from the Southern California campus and attended USC games. Simonton had grown up in Pittsburg, Calif., knowing all about USC's history of great running backs like Anthony Davis, Marcus Allen, O.J. Simpson and Charles White.
"Playing in (the Coliseum) is something special, knowing the footsteps you're following in, but in my stadium they're just another team coming in here," Simonton said.  "A lot of talent, but they're just another team. I pretty much hate 'em all equally."
As lofty as the Trojans' ranking was, Daily Barometer columnist Ryan Gabriel wasn't impressed. His offering in Thursday's edition was headlined "26 straight? It has to end sometime" and in it he wrote, "Call me crazy or just plain stupid, but I don't see the No. 8 ranking holding up. The three teams USC has beaten – Penn State, Colorado and San Jose State – are a combined 3-9."
Still, the Trojans had that defense that would be stacked against Simonton and the Pac-10's leading passer in sophomore Carson Palmer.
"He's the real deal," Erickson said.  "And USC's receivers look like an Olympic track team … guys like Kareem Kelly and Marcell Allmond."
With only about 1,000 general admission tickets left by Friday, local law enforcement agencies were getting ready for a busy weekend on local roadways. Before OSU and USC played at 3:30 p.m., Oregon would be meeting Washington in Eugene at 12:30 p.m.
Friday evening, a reunion was held commemorating another football result that lived in Oregon State lore: the 1933 "Iron Men" game in Portland, in which 11 Beavers played the entirety of a 0-0 tie that ended the Trojans' 25-game winning streak. The only surviving members of those teams – Oregon State guard Bill Tomsheck and Southern California guard Larry Stevens – got together at The Gables restaurant.
"You guys were a tough team," Tomsheck told Stevens, who was a guest of the OSU Alumni Association for the weekend. "You know, Larry, I don't really remember you that much from that game. I just remember being so tired I couldn't undress."
Early Saturday afternoon, September 30, amid the Beaver fans tailgating in anticipation of the 3:30 p.m. kickoff, the official groundbreaking was held for OSU's new indoor practice facility between 30th Street and Prothro Field. Work had begun the previous Monday on the new softball stadium near Western Boulevard.
On a cloudy, 75-degree afternoon in front of a sold-out crowd of 33,775, the game got off to an uneven start for the Beavers.
OSU took the opening kickoff and Smith hit Chad Johnson for 39 yards; two plays later, Simonton fumbled and the USC recovered. On the Trojans' third play, Beaver cornerback Dennis Weathersby picked off Palmer and returned the ball to the Oregon State 41-yard line.
For the first time in 2000, the Beavers got a game's initial score. Smith connected with Johnson for the final 15 yards of a 59-yard drive and it was 7-0 just over five minutes into the game.
After the OSU defense forced a three-and-out, the Beavers took possession at their own 24. A seven-play drive included Smith's 36-yard pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh; it was capped by Simonton's 20-yard touchdown run that saw him break an arm tackle, spin away from a defender and then dash through three other Trojans into the end zone. With 5:04 left in the first quarter, Oregon State had a 14-0 lead and was already had just a shade under 200 yards total offense.
"We got off to a great start," Smith said. "Then it started to dwindle."
The Trojans responded with a 71-yard march to get within 14-7 late in the first quarter. Early in the second, the Beavers were driving but Patrick McCall fumbled and USC linebacker Zeke Moreno scooped up the ball and went 80 yards to tie the game at 14-14.
"I've kept hearing about 26 straight losses to SC and I didn't want to hear it anymore," Erickson said afterward. "Then they did that little comeback and I thought maybe I was going to have to keep hearing it."
Oregon State had to punt on its next possession and Southern California had the momentum going its way. At that point, with 11:41 left in the half, came the strangest television timeout in Beaver football history.
As the teams gathered on their benches, a possum emerged from the stands beyond the south end zone and began dashing downfield. The crowd took notice and began cheering; at the north 6-yard line the possum took a brief cut to the left, then returned to its original course and crossed the goal line to a rousing ovation. OSU game management personnel corralled the marvelous marsupial and took it out of the stadium.
The Wild Kingdom moment seemed to ease some of the tension that had built up during the Trojans' comeback. The rest of the second quarter was scoreless and the game reached its midway point tied 14-14.
USC opened the third quarter by driving to the OSU 9 but David Newbury's 26-yard field goal try hit the right upright. The teams traded punts the rest of the third quarter – with the Trojans losing starting tailback Sultan McCullough with an injury - and into the fourth.
"It hurt them to lose him," Carroll said. "But they didn't have that much yardage on the ground anyway."
The next momentum shift came early in the final period, Oregon State downed Mike Fessler's punt at the Southern California 1. USC fullback Petros Papadakis carried on the first play and was popped by OSU safety Calvin Carlyle; the ball came loose and Carlyle recovered at the USC 6. Three Simonton carries, the last one covering two yards, put the ball in the end zone and the Beavers led 21-14 with 11:04 to go.
Oregon State forced a punt and the Beavers' next drive resulted in Ryan Cesca's 41-yard field goal. OSU was up 24-14 with 8:04 to play. USC put together a drive to the Oregon State 9, but Terrence Carroll picked off Palmer and returned the ball to the Trojan 16 with 5:54 left.
The end of the streak was in sight – but it wasn't an easy route to get there.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a false start pushed the ball back to the 36 and the Beavers had to punt. The Trojans went deep on their first play and Rickey Walker picked off Palmer at the Beaver 31 with 4:12 remaining.
Oregon State was again forced to punt, but Fessler couldn't corral the snap and USC hopped on the ball at the OSU 12 with 2:35 on the clock. Palmer connected with Chad Pierson for a one-yard scoring pass, and suddenly the Beaver lead was down to 24-21 with 2:14 to go.
The Beavers' Darnell Robinson recovered the onside kick try and Oregon State took over at the Trojan 45, looking to run out the clock. On third-and-one, Simonton tried the left side of the line, bounced left and found plenty of running room; his 36-yard touchdown scamper put OSU in front 31-21 with only 1:18 left in the game.
The noise, at a high volume all day as Beaver fans heeded Erickson and Barnhart's exhortations, reached a deafening crescendo.
The 26-game, 33-year losing streak really was going to end.
USC lost four yards on its ensuing series to turn the ball over, Smith took a knee, and Oregon State fans charged the field, celebrating not only the Beavers' first win over the Trojans since 1967 but their first 4-0 start since 1957.
"My, oh, my. What in the name of thunder-footed Mike Haggard is going on here?" G-T columnist Brooks Hatch would write in Sunday morning's issue, referring to the kicker whose field goal accounted for the only points in that 1967 victory. After reviewing USC's proud gridiron tradition, Hatch continued, "On Saturday, mighty USC was outrushed by a possum."
Indeed, while the possum covered the entire 100 yards of Reser Stadium turf, the Trojans had been limited to 63 yards rushing.
On the other side of the stat sheet, Simonton had gone for a career-high 234 yards on 37 carries and three touchdowns; it was the second-most rushing yards ever in a game by a Beaver, trailing only Bill Enyart's 299 against Utah in 1968. It was also the second-most USC had ever allowed a single back.
"When Kenny's in the game, or any of our running backs for that matter, it's just like you really want him to do good, so you want to block as good as you can, because you want him to have so much success," Oregon State center Chris Gibson said. "He's such a good back that if you give him a little bit of room, he's going to break and make big plays like that last play of the game. We were just looking for a first down; he went in and scored."
Smith was 10-for-29 passing for 157 yards and a touchdown while Houshmandzadeh had five caches for 70 yards. The Beavers finished with a 375-345 advantage in total yards and a 23-16 edge in first downs.
"This is who we are," Erickson said. "We play great defense. We run the football. And we play-action pass. But mostly we play defense."
USC was penalized 90 yards to 85 for OSU, but over half of the Beavers' seven penalties were for personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct.
"Our guys were running all over the place making plays, hitting people, showing great emotion … maybe sometimes too much emotion," Erickson said. "But that's who these kids are, and I don't want them to lose that."
Erickson called it one of the sweetest victories of his long and storied coaching career.
"I couldn't be prouder of a team," he said. "You don't beat somebody you haven't beaten in years as a program and not have it be one of the biggest wins you've ever been involved with. I've been fortunate enough to be around some pretty good wins but this one is right up there with any of them."
OSU linebacker Richard Seigler felt the Trojans tried to come in and intimidate the Beavers.
"That's not going to happen here," Siegler said. "The Beavers are alive, and rolling. Today the fans came out and supported us. Our fans let them know they were coming into the wrong house. It was nice to see the smiles on their faces, and it's just going to continue."
As the Beavers met the media, those fans were still on the field, hoarse and celebrating. Phil Shepard, who graduated from OSU in 1991, told the Gazette-Times, "I was 1 month old the last time they beat SC."
Scott Powell of Rickreall had been at the 1967 game as an ROTC member, standing near the field and seeing the Beavers' last victory in the series before this one.
"It's been a long drought," Powell told the G-T. "This was a great game."
Wrote Bob Rodman in Sunday morning's Eugene Register-Guard: "What's next? Erickson walking across the Willamette River … and no bridge needed?"
What indeed?