2000: The Win Over Cal
By Kip Carlson
The first week of November, 2000, Oregon State head football coach Dennis Erickson sat down for a lengthy question-and-answer session published in The Oregonian. With the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in its final days, one of reporter Rachel Bachman's questions was who would receive Erickson's vote.
"Oh, I don't mix sports and politics," Erickson answered. Bachman then asked, "Are you interested in politics at all?" Erikson's response: "Yeah. But that's one subject I will not talk about."
"That's very diplomatic," Bachman observed, to which Erickson replied, "That's exactly right. That's why I should be a politician."
Had he opted to go that route, at that moment Erickson likely could have been elected mayor of Corvallis; perhaps the only person capable of beating him would have been Beaver running back Ken Simonton.
That duo was among the reasons OSU had rolled to a 7-1 overall record and a 4-1 Pacific-10 mark after beating Washington State 38-9 the previous weekend. The presidential polls gave Bush a slight edge over Gore that week, but the polls that mattered more in Corvallis were the ones that had Oregon State moving up to No. 14 in both the Associated Press media poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
To go along with that, the Beavers moved into the Bowl Championship Series rankings at No. 11. OSU and Washington were tied for second in the Pac-10, one game behind Oregon; the Beavers could gain a Rose Bowl berth by winning the rest of its games but would also need a loss by the Huskies to do so.
"I'm not worried about it because I can't," Erickson said of the Rose Bowl possibilities. "Shoot, we have enough problems ourselves."
Riding a three-game winning streak and guaranteed a bowl berth for the second straight season, Oregon State was now headed for a game at California. The Golden Bears were 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the Pac-10.
While the Beavers focused on Cal, much of the state was anticipating what could be the most momentous rivalry game ever: Oregon at Oregon State on November 18 with both teams nationally ranked and the winner potentially going to the Rose Bowl. On Monday, OSU students lined up in front of Gill Coliseum to pick up vouchers that would put them in a drawing for tickets to the game.
Monday also brought an announcement from Oregon State athletic director Mitch Barnhart that a new contract for Erickson was in the works. Said Barnhart: "Our current football success gives our overall athletic department the ability to move forward. We certainly want to recognize those efforts in an appropriate fashion. As we continue to complete our facility projects, Coach Erickson's leadership of the Oregon State football program will cement our further athletic growth."
Trent Bray had committed to Washington State the previous spring, when his father Craig was defensive backs coach for the Cougars. But Craig had since become defensive coordinator on Erickson's staff, and when Trent attended the previous week's game he'd been wearing an OSU sweatshirt and hat; he was still wearing them when he bumped into Bill Doba, WSU's new defensive coordinator.
"Doba told him he must have had some bird-something on his hat," Craig Bray said. The rest of the story is that father told son to take a scholarship if it was offered – saving the family college costs - and Trent did just that, only to have Craig move to OSU and let Trent know his new school wanted Trent.
"And Trent answered, 'Well, you told me to do it,'" Craig said of his son's WSU commitment. "So he's kind of got me in a bind. I'd love to have him come here. I think he'd enjoy being a Beaver. But I'd never pressure my son to go anywhere he doesn't want to go. It's his life."
Even with Barnhart's announcement that a new deal was in the works for Erickson, the head coach addressed the issue at OSU's weekly media gathering – particularly the rumors that he was headed for Southern California.
"This stuff is a bunch of crap," Erickson said. "It's not distracting to me or anyone in the program, but all this seems to be distracting to you guys. I'm happy here. I've said it before."
Eugene Register-Guard columnist Ron Bellamy offered his perspective on coaches – even ones happy in their current jobs – listening to other suitors. He cited Oregon men's basketball coach Ernie Kent, who had interviewed at Notre Dame and remained with the Ducks "quite happily," Bellamy wrote.
"If you're a coach, you can never say never. You should never say never. The profession is too precarious," Bellamy continued, noting how Arizona State's Bruce Snyder and UCLA's Bob Toledo had been hailed for their successes just a few years before but were now on the hot seat.
As Erickson was drawing national attention, so was Simonton. On his Heisman Trophy watch list, Mike Kerns of the Philadelphia Daily News ranked the Pac-10's rushing and scoring leader at No. 10, commenting, "Anyone who has the Beavers thinking Rose Bowl is good enough for me."
With the week's opponent being California, it brought up memories of the previous season's meeting against the Golden Bears – one of the most momentous games in Oregon State's football history. That night in Corvallis, the Beavers won 17-7 to clinch their first winning season after 28 straight losing campaigns.
"It meant a lot to me," said linebacker Tevita Moala, whose fumble return for a touchdown wrapped up the victory. "But I know it meant a lot more to the people loyal to the Oregon State program for all those years."
Moala, whose playing time was increasing through the fall of 2000 as he came back from a knee injury suffered during spring football, had come to OSU for the 1999 season so he hadn't been part of that infamous streak.
"Most of us who came in with coach Erickson were used to winning," Moala said. "Now football is finally fun around here."
Another win over Cal would make it even more fun, giving OSU its first 8-1 start ever.
"The significance of the California game this year is the same as it has been for the last three or four games," Moala said. "We have everything to lose if we lose."
Cal headed into the game with losing records overall and in the Pac-10 but had won two of its last three, including beating Southern California 28-16 in Los Angeles the previous Saturday. The two weeks before that, the Bears had given No. 9 Washington a battle before losing and beat No. 13 UCLA in triple overtime.
"They're really starting to come together," Erickson said. "It's not like we're playing a 3-5 team. Right now, they're at the other end of the spectrum."
Cal's defense was led by Andre Carter, who Erickson called "the best defensive end in college football." Sophomore quarterback Kyle Boller had grown into the position since starting as a true freshman the previous season and running back Joe Igber was averaging 107 yards per game rushing the past four games.
One Beaver charged with stopping that attack was James Allen, whose back problems limited his practice and game time early in the season. Then Erickson and a trainer suggested he try acupuncture; after six sessions he was back at full speed.
"I can run, jump, tackle, hit – you know, all that," Allen told the Gazette-Times. "Acupuncture really helped me, I can say that. It surprised me because I never even thought about going to get some needles stuck in my body, but it helped, that's all I can say. It worked for me."
As the Beavers got ready to head to Berkeley, there was growing dissatisfaction concerning one aspect of OSU's lone remaining home game, that much-anticipated clash with Oregon that could decide the Pac-10 champion. The issue? The tarps.
Starting in 1999, the east grandstand at Reser Stadium had approximately 1,200 seats covered by tarps over several rows about midway up each section. The reason? OSU students had the seats in the front of those sections and often stood for most of the game, blocking the view of reserved seats behind them. The space created by the tarps offered a sightline for those sitting behind the students to see the game.
Now, with potentially the biggest game in Oregon State history coming up, OSU students wanted those seats made available. The Gazette-Times reported that on Friday afternoon, about 30 students protested on the front steps of Gill Coliseum, holding signs reading "Take Down The Tarps" and "We Want Our Seats."
Barnhart had written an open letter to OSU fans explaining the reason for the policy, but the student protestors said packing more fans into the stands would boost the Beavers.
"It's gonna help the team a hell of a lot more," Steve Stephens told the crowd. As for those whose view might be blocked, Stephens said, "In a Civil War game of this magnitude, if you want to be sitting down for the game, do it at home."
On the first Saturday in November, the Beavers had to do their part to make sure the Civil War would have as much as possible riding on it. At Memorial Stadium, OSU was greeted by a sunny 67-degree afternoon and a significant portion of the crowd of 36,000 was wearing orange.
Oregon State scored on its first two possessions to jump out to a 14-0 lead by midway through the first quarter. Simonton's career-long 64-yard run set up his two-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0. OSU's second possession was a seven-play, 62-yard drive that included a 37-yard pass from Jonathan Smith to T.J. Houshmandzadeh and ended with Simonton's four-yard run for a 14-0 lead.
Cal bounced back in a hurry, in a variety of ways: a Boller touchdown pass, a safety when OSU snapped the ball out of the end zone on a punt, and a Mark Jensen field goal brought the Bears back within 14-12 with 10:58 left in the half.
Now it was Oregon State's turn to rebound. The Beavers went 79 yards in seven plays, getting a 33-yard pass from Jonathan Smith to Chad Johnson and scoring on Simonton's six-yard run to push the lead back to 21-12. Then it was Keith Heyward-Johnson picking off Boller to give the Beavers a short field; Patrick McCall scored on a one-yard run to cap a four-play, 45-yard drive and make it 28-12. When Ryan Cesca booted a 32-yard field goal, the Beaver lead was 31-12 with 2:35 left in the half.
For much of the half, the headsets connecting OSU's on-field coaches with those in the press box weren't working; the Beavers prospered despite the communications breakdown.
"If it stays like that, we're just going to throw the headsets away on offense," Erickson said. "It was kind of like high school, when I coached at Billings Central. We'd never heard of headsets."
After OSU scored to make it 31-12, Cal used the remaining two-and-a-half minutes to put together a 10-play, 74-yard drive concluded by Boller's 30-yard pass to Chase Lyman and it was 31-19 at halftime.
"We played well in the first half, then we let them score at the end of the half," Erickson said. "That gave them momentum."
The Golden Bears carried that into the second half. While the Beavers went scoreless in the third quarter, Cal got Jensen's 39-yard field goal to close within 31-22 heading into the final quarter. When Boller hit Derek Swafford with a screen pass that turned into an 81-yard touchdown with 9:43 to play, suddenly it was 31-29 in a game Oregon State had appeared to be dominating just before halftime.
By then, Simonton was out of the game due to nagging hamstring and groin issues; he'd rushed for 125 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
"I have some bumps and bruises, some knocks and knacks, but that's just football," Simonton said afterward. "That will not keep me off the field. I keep me off the field. I basically told (the coaches) I thought Patrick should get some runs."
That meant the ground game was in the hands of McCall.
"We have all the confidence in the world with Patrick," Smith said. "Our offensive line played well for us against one of the best defensive lines out there."
Yet it was Smith who came up with perhaps the biggest carry of the game. With OSU clinging to that two-point lead, the Beavers faced a third-and-nine at the Cal 48 as the clock ticked under seven minutes to play. Smith dropped back to pass and was pressured by a blitz; he eluded one Bear and saw open field in front of him. Twenty-one yards later, after securing the first down, Smith secured the ball firmly before being hit.
"I knew he was going to come free, that he wasn't going to be blocked," Smith said. "And so I did try to avoid him. I don't know that I make that many people miss, to be honest, but I think it helped he came so quickly and so free. That he was so full speed that maybe he wasn't able to (slow down). That probably made it more than anything else."
Observed Erickson: "That was a big play, boy … great speed and athletic ability."
On the next play, McCall took the ball around the left side and covered the remaining 27 yards for a touchdown and a 38-29 lead with 6:06 to go, following the blocks of Mitch White and Jared Cornell.
"They pulled and got their blocks, and I saw daylight and just ran and ran," McCall said of the play, which capped an 84-yard, eight-play drive.
McCall finished with 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 17 carries, giving the Beavers two 100-yard rushers in the game.
"Patrick made some big plays for us," Erickson said. "He's a talent. He may be as talented as anyone else in the league, and we're fortunate to have both of them."
Cal marched within field goal range and Jensen booted a 40-yarder with 1:44 to go to pull the Golden Bears within 38-32, but Houshmandzadeh recovered the ensuing onside kick and the Beavers were able to run out the clock to reach that historic 8-1 start.
"Coach E emphasized that before the game, that we could make history," Johnson said. "Then we went about winning, executing and dominating."
In addition to Simonton and McCall both going over 100 yards rushing, Smith passed for 317 yards; he went 11-for-28 but had completions of 37 and 58 yards to Houshmandzadeh, 33 yards to Johnson and 39 and 55 yards to Robert Prescott. Johnson finished with four catches for 90 yards and Prescott and Houshmandzadeh both had three catches for 109 yards.
"Those guys are pretty explosive," Erickson said. Added Smith: "A couple of them were longer throws, but besides that, they were short catches that turned into big plays."
OSU rolled up 524 total yards to Cal's 376. There was a problem area for OSU; nine penalties for 94 yards, many of which kept alive Cal drives or cost the Beavers scoring chances.
"That's stuff I emphasize every week and it's going to cost us a game one of these days," Erickson said.
The Beaver defense sacked Boller six times and had 11 tackles for lost yardage; defensive ends LaDairis Jackson and Sefa O'Reilly and defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and Ryan Atkinson had two each. Oregon State limited Cal to just 27 yards rushing.
Boller passed for 349 yards and three scores, but Jake Cookus added a fourth-quarter interception to go along with Heyward-Johnson's pick; on that play, the former high school quarterback lateralled the ball to linebacker Darnell Robinson for an additional 10 yards.
"It was right in front of me – I almost had triple-bypass surgery on it," Erickson said. "I wanted to grab it myself but I wasn't quick enough."
As the Beavers showered and dressed for the return trip to Corvallis, Washington was battling Arizona in Seattle; a Husky loss would put OSU's Rose Bowl fate solely in the Beavers hands. The Oregonian columnist Chuck Culpepper described the scene of Smith observing OSU fans who were following the game on screens in a TV production truck parked outside Memorial Stadium.
"Look at that," Smith said.
Wrote Culpepper: "Yes, just look at that. The throbbing, stirring party mansion that is November college football has swung open its big old door and has let in these people – yes, even these people. These long-forlorn people. These weary, giddy souls in orange and black. These Oregon State fans."
Washington rallied to win, but to Culpepper that wasn't the main point.
"November was on, and they were invited," he wrote of the Beaver fans celebrating OSU's win and anguishing over the Washington comeback. "To look out there and love them was rather mandatory."