It wasn't the sort of Southwestern vacation that postcards are
made of. Aside from practice and a handful of obligatory press
functions leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, the members of the
Oregon State football team spent 10 days all but quarantined in
the Plaza hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. When their Notre Dame
opponents, fresh off a three-day furlough with their families,
rolled into town late on Christmas night, most of the Beavers
were deciding between the turkey club and Moons over My Hammy at
the Scottsdale Denny's. "We've got some serious business to take
care of," explained Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson, who had
learned his lesson after last year's Oahu Bowl, when his players
capped off a week of sun, sand and hula bars with a loss to a
mediocre Hawaii team. "We can celebrate--after we win, that is."
The Beavers didn't wait quite that long. From the moment they
charged into Sun Devil Stadium before a crowd of 75,428, they
couldn't stop dancing: on the sideline during the national
anthem, into the end zone for touchdowns and, finally, into the
history books. Buoyed by the precision passing of junior
quarterback Jonathan Smith and the circus-act catches of
receivers T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson, driven by the
locomotive might of 5'8" tailback Ken Simonton and bolstered by
a defensive line and linebacker corps that stifled any attempt
of Notre Dame's to join the fiesta, Oregon State handed a team
bearing the most storied name in college football its
second-worst bowl defeat. With their 41-9 win the Beavers, who
entered the game 10-1 and ranked No. 5, put an exclamation point
on their program's dramatic about-face under Erickson.
The turnaround began in January 1999, when Erickson, the
erstwhile University of Miami coach who was ready to return to
the college ranks after a disappointing stint with the Seattle
Seahawks, applied for the Oregon State job that had opened up
when Mike Riley left to take over the San Diego Chargers. With
two national championship rings (Miami '89 and '91) glinting on
his fingers, he strolled into his first team meeting and
announced that Oregon State was Rose Bowl material. "You could
see the intensity in his eyes," says senior linebacker Tevita
Moala. "He wanted to make us believe him."
This was a tall order for a program that had just experienced its
28th consecutive losing season, an NCAA record. "We're not a
bunch of blue-chippers," said James Allen, a junior linebacker
who led the defense with seven solo tackles on Monday night.
"When I came out of high school in Portland, Oregon State took a
chance on me. That's the way it was with a lot of us."
With resourceful recruiting, which included the addition of 16
junior college transfers, Oregon State went 7-5 in Erickson's
first season. Though the Beavers finished the 2000 regular
season with one more win than the Irish and were ranked five
spots ahead of them, plenty of people needed to be convinced
that Oregon State was for real. After the Fiesta committee
extended its invitation to Oregon State, one South Bend
columnist wondered in print why No. 10 Notre Dame wasn't playing
a more worthy opponent, like Virginia Tech.
The Irish came into the game with brawnier linemen, superior
special teams and just eight turnovers, which equaled the NCAA
record for fewest in a season, yet Notre Dame was no match for
Oregon State's speed on either side of the ball. Receivers
Houshmandzadeh and Johnson repeatedly burned the Irish secondary,
and Simonton, who added 85 rushing yards to his regular-season
tally of 1,474, broke his year-old single-season school rushing
record in the first quarter. The Oregon State defense swarmed
such usually prolific Irish rushers as freshman quarterback Matt
LoVecchio and sophomore tailback Julius Jones before either could
so much as attempt a cut. LoVecchio was sacked five times; Jones,
Notre Dame's top tailback, was a nonfactor with 30 yards on 13
carries. "The linebackers were real fast-flow guys, and the
defensive ends were tremendously fast, but we were prepared for
that," said Irish tight end Dan O'Leary.
What the Irish weren't prepared for was Jonathan Smith. The
5'10", 194-pound former walk-on, whom Erickson mistook for a team
manager upon first meeting him, completed 16 of 24 passes for 305
yards in only three quarters. With a third-quarter bullet that
Houshmandzadeh plucked from the sky just as his toe caught the
lower right corner of the end zone, Smith set a school season
record of 19 touchdown passes. (He threw three in the game.)
While the athleticism that earned him first-team all-league
honors as both a quarterback and pitcher at Glendora (Calif.)
High was displayed on Monday night, it is Smith's field sense
that truly impresses his coaches. "He handles things better than
most guys, calms the cadence and makes the good checks," says
offensive coordinator Tim Lappano.
Smith tried his best to put a stop to the late hitting and
smack-talking that ended up costing the Beavers a Fiesta
Bowl-record 18 penalties. At one point Johnson coolly ditched
the ball as he was gliding into the end zone, a careless bit of
swagger that, but for the officials' forbearance, could have
cost Oregon State a touchdown. After the game, Erickson offered
a lopsided grin when he said, "We had some dumb penalties, but
there were some penalties that shouldn't have been called, too.
We're a very aggressive team. That's just how we play." Notre
Dame might even have been thankful. The Irish picked up 174
yards as a result of Oregon State penalties, 19 more than their
total net yards.
After the game Irish coach Bob Davie squinted into the press
flashbulbs and, as he has throughout this pressure cooker of a
season, looked at the bright side. "I think it was a great
experience for a young football team," he said. A moment later,
though, he was grimly offering some New Year's resolutions. "In
the future we're going to have to be able to run the football
north and south. Defensively, we have to improve coveragewise.
It's obvious we've got a lot of work to do."
As Davie ticked off his list, the Oregon State players shimmied
and sang and laughed in the nearly empty stadium parking lot with
friends and family who had made the trek to Phoenix. Many of the
Beavers agreed that, on second thought, their extended and
monastic stay in the Southwest was a grand idea after all. "That
weather was real nice for my arm," said Smith. "After that last
string of great practices, we all kind of knew that things would
go our way."
With a quick kiss for his girlfriend, Candice Huddle, Oregon
State's man of the hour hopped on the team bus. For the first
time in a long while, no place seemed more inviting than
Corvallis in January.