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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 Erick-son'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."