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2000: The Win Over WSU

Nov 25, 2020

By Kip Carlson
Bowl bound.
After coming back from four 10-point deficits to beat No. 23 UCLA 44-38 at the Rose Bowl on October 21, Oregon State knew it would be headed for postseason play for a second consecutive year. With four games left in the season, the question was: what's the destination going to be?
The possibilities ranged all the way from the Rose Bowl trip awarded the Pacific-10 champion down to the Las Vegas or Motor City bowls.
 "I think we need to let this thing play out a little bit more," OSU athletic director Mitch Barnhart said two days after the Beavers improved to 6-1 on the season and 3-1 in the Pac-10. "Our staff has begun to plan some things, but until we get a little further along … in the next couple weeks you'll begin to learn what it might look like."
Oregon State still had reason to dream big: the Beavers were just one game behind Pac-10 leader Oregon and would get the Ducks at Reser Stadium to conclude the regular season.
 Still a month off, that game was still the subject of mounting anticipation among football fans around the state. In The Oregonian, reporter Jason Quick noted the announcement of OSU's victory at UCLA drew a roar of approval from Duck fans at Autzen Stadium; Oregon coach Mike Bellotti was asked whether he noticed more excitement with both the state's teams near the top of the conference and nationally ranked.
"There's no question," Bellotti said. "Last year, I think it was the same thing, and I think this year the excitement is even a step better. Hopefully, we will both take care of business so the Civil War has that much more value attached to it. But I think people are already excited."
Oregon State's victory moved the Beavers up to No. 17 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll and No. 18 in the Associated Press media poll. The first Bowl Championship Series rankings of the season were issued that week, with Oregon at No. 8 and Washington at No. 9; the Beavers weren't among the 15 teams listed.
In the aftermath of the win at UCLA, Oregon State quarterback Jonathan Smith was named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week and Ryan Cesca was the Special Teams Player of the Week. Smith had completed 23 of 37 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns, while Cesca made three field goals in the Beavers' fourth-quarter comeback and connected on all five of his point-after kicks.
The honors came the same day the Pac-10 announced it would resume playing conference tournaments in 2002 to determine its men's and women's basketball automatic bids into the NCAA tournament.
Smith's triumph at the Rose Bowl came a year after he'd found rough going in a loss to Southern California across town at the Coliseum, but he bounced back to play what Erickson said was "the best I've seen Jonathan play since I've been at Oregon State. He is throwing a lot more accurately and with a lot more confidence."
Smith said he'd always been confident in himself.
"So I knew I could do it," Smith said. "But you look at it, gosh, I'm not a great athlete. I'm not fast. I'm pretty short. So I wasn't really shocked when I didn't get the calls for scholarships, you know? I'm more of a realist.
"But I did want an opportunity, and I got one at Oregon State and I'm really glad about it."
Oregon State tailback Ken Simonton had rushed for 100 yards on 24 carries against the Bruins before leaving the game early in the second half with a strained groin. He now ranked fifth nationally in rushing at 142 yards per game and 12th in scoring at 9.43 points per game; Erickson said Simonton should be ready to start by week's end.
That would be OSU's Homecoming game against Washington State at Reser Stadium, where Oregon State had won seven in a row. The last 150 obstructed view tickets were sold Monday morning, guaranteeing the Beavers' third straight sellout – a new school record, breaking the record of two straight set with wins over UCLA and Oregon near the end of the 1968 season.
"We have a little winning streak going here," Oregon State wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. "Coach Erickson talks about not letting anyone come into our home and beat us. Playing at home, the crowd gets into it and we feed off of them now … we don't want to let them down, and we don't want to lose at home, period."
The game, originally scheduled for 1 p.m., had been moved to a 7:15 p.m. kickoff for broadcast on Fox Sports Net, worth $240,000 for the OSU athletic department. The onlookers would include representatives from the Holiday Bowl, which was slated to include the Pac-10 runnerup.
The Cougars were 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-10 after losing back-to-back overtime games: 23-20 to Arizona State in their most recent game and 43-47 at Arizona in triple-overtime the week before that. As Brooks Hatch of the Corvallis Gazette-Times wrote, "Change a play or two here and there and WSU could easily be 5-2 and battling for the Rose Bowl themselves."
OSU offensive line coach Gregg Smith said the Cougars looked like they were playing well and with emotion.
"The thing that is killing them is not being able to win the close games," Smith said. "That always kind of shakes you up a little bit, but it also tells you, 'Hey, we're good enough to go line up and play with anybody.' It looks like they've got a lot of things going for them, they just haven't had any bounces going their way.
"They're going to come in here and be fired up. All we can do is take care of our business and go play."
The Beavers were 12-point favorites to start the week, but as Hatch wrote in the G-T, "The Beavers had better consider the 2000 Cougars of quarterback Jason Gesser to be every bit as formidable as the 1997 Cougars of Ryan Leaf. If they don't, OSU's Rose Bowl dreams will evaporate faster than the Willamette Valley fog on a sunny October day."
In two short years, the Beavers had gone from being the team other teams had to avoid overlooking to a team having to make sure it didn't overlook others.
"We're 6-1 but we've got four games left," Houshmandzadeh said.  "We could lose the next four and be 6-5. As a player, you know you haven't done anything until your goal is accomplished. We could lose the rest of our games and it would just be talk about how we had a good first half and the last four games we crumbled. We know to get what we want to get done we have to stay focused."
OSU's quarterback agreed.
"The guys realize a loss puts us out," Smith said of the Rose Bowl race. "We lose, we're out. I don't think it will take too much to refocus. We had the weekend to enjoy the (UCLA) win and learn from some of the mistakes, and to crack down on school on Monday. Then Tuesday comes and you need to focus on your next game. Team meetings start at two o'clock."
Before that next game happened, the upstart Beavers would be featured on "The Slant," Fox Sports Net's weekly 30-minute program covering college football. The program's host, Tim Beggy, and crew had been in Corvallis for OSU's win over Stanford two weeks before.
When game day did arrive, it would not only pit a pair of friends in Erickson and WSU head coach Mike Price, who were one year apart as students at Everett High School in the 1960s, but also match a set of neighbors: Price and first-year OSU defensive coordinator Craig Bray, who had been a Cougar assistant for six years.
Bray's wife Kaprice and sons Josh and Trent had remained in Pullman so Trent could complete his final year of high school there and the Brays lived on Sunny Meade Way near the Prices. Said Price: "This has got to be the first time the defensive coordinator of the opposing team lives across the street."
Corvallis continued to show more and more signs of Beaver Fever: The Oregonian's Rachel Bachman noted "evidence of the Beavers' resurgence is spreading through Corvallis like autumn colors. 'Go Beavs' signs have appeared in downtown coffee shops and tire stores. An orange flag reading 'ROSE BOWL' flies outside an office building at Fourth Street and Monroe Avenue."
"When I got here as a freshman, it was kind of like you folded up your Oregon State gear and put it in the bottom of your drawer," OSU offensive guard Jared Cornell told the newspaper. "Because you didn't want people to know you were a football player."
"Everything's a lot more fun," Cornell said. "I have teachers congratulating me every week on the game. Even when we played and we lost, it was, 'Oh, what a great game.'"
By now, Oregon State's players were drawing notice for their potential at the next level. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. rated defensive end DeLawrance Grant No. 25 on his list of the nation's top 25 senior prospects and also praised wide receiver Chad Johnson in his column: "If he finishes strong, a wideout with his size, deep speed and athleticism figures to be watched very closely by the NFL brass."
Wednesday, the OSU athletic department announced its plan for distributing student tickets for the Civil War: a lottery system in which interested students could pick up a numbered voucher from October 30 to November 3; on November 6, the athletic department would announce the range of voucher numbers whose holders would be entitled to a ticket.
Homecoming weekend began Thursday night with a bonfire and Greek organizations had decorated their houses with signs boosting the Beavers. Friday included a concert by Everclear that wasn't an official Homecoming event but was designed to boost interest in voting in the fast-approaching general election. "Having (band member) Art Alexakis shout 'Go Beavers!' was an added touch," the Gazette-Times reported.
Saturday night's game would offer a contrast in styles: led by Simonton, Oregon State had the Pac-10's top rushing offense at 192.4 yards per game while Washington State's Gesser led the conference in passing at 261 yards per game. Two keys on the other side of the ball: the Cougars' rushing defense (161.3 ypg) and total defense (403.4 ypg) ranked last in the conference while the Beavers were second in total defense.
"I just watch the tapes of them, and it just brings a smile to my face when I see that defense run around and hit the way they hit," Price said of the Beavers. "They're excited. When they do good things, they're jumping on each other and congratulating each other. Dennis has got it going and kids like it and they're having a good time."
On an overcast night with the temperature in the mid-50s, a crowd of 34,491 settled into Reser Stadium for a good time of its own.
After stalling on their first possession, the Beavers hit the gas on their second. Simonton, who entered the game with 994 yards on the season, got the ball on second-and-10 from the Beaver 41-yard line, raced to the right sideline and cut upfield for a 53-yard game to the WSU 6.
That was the longest run of Simonton's OSU career to date and made him the first player in Pac-10 history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. He became just the sixth in the conference ever to have three 1,000-yard seasons, joining Washington's Napoleon Kaufman, California's Russell White, Stanford's Darrin Nelson and Southern California's Charles White and Anthony Davis.
"He just amazes you every time he goes out there and plays," Erickson said afterward. "He's a great back, one of the best in football right now."
The Beavers turned that carry into a 22-yard field goal by Cesca to go up 3-0 with 9:38 left in the first quarter.
Later in the period, Keith Heyward-Johnson picked off Gesser at the WSU 43. Patrick McCall's 22-yard run and three carries by Simonton took the ball to the 2, then Simonton carried into the end zone to make it 10-0 with 4:27 left in the opening quarter.
Cesca added a pair of 32-yard field goals in the second quarter to push Oregon State's lead to 16-0. The Cougars, gaining just 43 yards on their first seven possessions and not picking up a first down until the 7:19 mark of the second quarter, finally got on the board with Anousith Wilaikul's 20-yard field goal 34 seconds before halftime to make it 16-3 at the break.
"I think we really took it out of them," Heyward-Johnson said. "We did a pretty good job on defense."
By then, Simonton had 116 yards on 16 carries. Said Smith: "Kenny was great for us. It's really amazing to watch that guy go."
After halftime, the Beavers removed all doubt about the outcome. Simonton had a 42-yard run on OSU's first possession and then a five-yard touchdown run and two-point conversion run to make it 24-3. Houshmandzadeh gathered in touchdown passes of 17 and 23 yards from Smith, and it was 38-3 going into the final quarter.
"We probably played as good in one quarter as we have all year," Erickson said of the Beavers' 22 straight points in the third period.
The Beavers spent much of the fourth quarter letting a multitude of players get on the field in front of the Homecoming crowd. The Cougars got into the end zone with 13:01 to go on a trick play, Gesser throwing wide to Collin Henderson, who then tossed downfield to Nakoa McElrath for 35 yards and the score; the point-after kick missed to leave the final score 38-9.
The statistics were just as lopsided, as OSU outgained Washington State 413-240.
"It's all about blocking and tackling," Price said. "They just smacked us right in the face."
Simonton finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries as the Beavers outrushed the Cougars 267-56. Said Simonton: "This is when it's fun. This is where you want to be."
McCall added 56 yards on 10 carries, Antonio Battled 35 yards on nine carries and wide receiver Robert Prescott 25 yards on a reverse. Smith finished 13-for-38 passing for 146 yards and a pair of touchdowns while being intercepted once as the Beavers went to 7-1 for the first time since their Rose Bowl season of 1964.
His counterpart, Gesser, went 11-for-29 for 104 yards and was picked off twice.
"The defensive line got pressure on him all night and hurried him," Heyward-Johnson said of Gesser. "The secondary came up with some interceptions. We have to give the credit to our defense – we stepped it up."
Linebacker James Allen led OSU with eight tackles, including two for lost yardage. The Beavers got sacks from Grant, safety Calvin Carlyle and defensive tackle Ryan Atkinson; cornerback Dennis Weathersby had an interception to go with Heyward-Johnson's.
Also that day, Oregon managed to defeat Arizona State in double overtime, Washington rallied to beat Stanford and UCLA defeated Arizona. Those results left Oregon leading the Pac-10 with a 5-0 conference mark, followed by OSU and Washington at 4-1.
If the Beavers won their final three games and the Huskies slipped up once, Oregon State would be making that return trip to the Rose Bowl. Sunday morning's Gazette-Times sports page included a picture of OSU students who apparently returned from the previous week's trip to Pasadena with a souvenir: a Rose Bowl banner.
Wrote the G-T's Hatch, looking ahead to the next week's game at California: "If the Beavers can duplicate their WSU performance – solid on defense, proficient on offense and near-perfect on special teams – they'll be 8-1, with one step firmly planted in a mainland bowl game much-anticipated by those in Beaver Nation who couldn't make it to Hawaii last Christmas."