Twenty years ago this week the Oregon State University football team broke a record for mediocrity in one of the strangest games in college history.
The Beavers came into the 1999 season riding a streak of 28 consecutive years of losing records. In 17 of those seasons the team won two games or less. Yet there they were Nov. 6, in their first year under coach Dennis Erickson, taking the field at a sold-out Reser Stadium for a game against California sporting a 5-3 record. The Bears were 4-4. One more win for OSU and the streak, which started with the 1971 season, was history.
They got the win, 17-7, and many of the 35,520 fans on hand took to the field afterward. But the path the team took to nail down that win was torturous. Consider that:
• Beavers sophomore quarterback Jonathan Smith, the current Beavers’ head coach, hit on just 8 of 33 passes.
• The Beavers were penalized 15 times for 149 yards. Cal achieved seven first downs via penalties.
• The two teams combined for 26 punts that traveled 1,037 yards, more than double the 509 yards of total offense the two squads mustered. OSU’s Mike Fessler punted 14 times for 593 yards. The 14 punts is an OSU single-game record and the yardage figure remains tops all time in the Pac-12 Conference. His 15th effort was blocked. If you lined up all 1,037 yards in punts from beginning to end it would stretch from Reser to the Bombs Away Cafe on Monroe Avenue.
• The two teams were a combined 2 for 33 on third down. Combined fumbles: four. Combined interceptions: three. Combined missed field goals: two. Smith and his Cal counterpart, freshman Kyle Boller, combined for 49 incomplete passes.
• And it wasn’t one of those mud bowls or games played in a monsoon in which no one can hang onto the ball. The temperature was 66 degrees at kickoff, and the artificial turf was hard and fast.
• The Beavers managed just one offensive touchdown on a one-play drive. And somehow won by 10.
“Boy, that’s punting a lot of times,” Smith said in a September interview. “Sometimes you have to find ways to win. Both defenses were playing great. We got the big pass play to Roddy Tompkins and then Tevita Moala made that big play on defense. That’s the way games sometimes go.”
Tompkins and Moala … remember those names. We will come back to them soon.
“The whole fall we were talking about going to a bowl game,” said Fessler, a financial adviser for Edward Jones and an assistant coach at Silverton High School. “That was the setup for the Cal game. We were going to be playing on TV. The stadium was packed. The vibe was pretty awesome. We knew we could win that game.”
For Mike Parker, in his 21st year as the radio voice of the Beavers, the journey began in a taxi in Portland. Parker was driving the cab “between jobs” as he put it. He was listening to a sports talk show and heard that Erickson had been hired to coach the Beavers.
“I almost had to pull over to comprehend the news,” Parker said. “And the fare in my cab didn’t understand why I was so interested in the news. He didn’t know who Dennis Erickson was.”
Fessler did. He had seen a team with promise under his first OSU coach, Jerry Pettibone, in his redshirt year. Then, vast improvement under Mike Riley, coming within a fumble against Cal or a missed two-point conversion against Washington of breaking the hex in 1998. Then came the January 1999 hiring of Erickson, who had won a pair of national titles at Miami, where he had gone 63-9 before a four-year run with the Seattle Seahawks.
“It was surreal to me,” Fessler said of the Erickson hire. “We saw Miami on TV every weekend” when he was growing up in North Carolina. “To see Dennis Erickson standing next to me on a football field. I had to call my dad to tell him.”
“There was a confidence and a swagger we got from coach Erickson,” Smith said. “He was saying ‘Why not us? We’re not backing down from anybody. We’re not backing down in any game we play.’ He definitely brought some of that confidence and swagger. We definitely felt it.”
Parker, meanwhile, did some baseball radio work for the Beavers in the spring as kind of an on-air tryout. He was hired in May of 1999.
“My first day on the job I went to a golf event with Dennis Erickson,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. A few days ago I’m driving a cab and here I am in an RV driving to Bend with Dennis Erickson. And off we went.”
The Beavers started fast that fall, jumping out to a 3-0 mark before the roof fell in with consecutive losses, to USC, Washington and Stanford. Only the Stanford game was close, 21-17. USC led the Beavs 37-7 before OSU made it a respectable 37-29 at the finish. The hated Huskies took a 35-0 lead at Reser before calling off the dogs and settling for a 47-21 win.
From 3-0 to 3-3, with UCLA coming to town. Were these the same, old Beavers?
“There was a lot of frustration there,” Parker said, “but a lot of it was expunged in a 55-7 win vs. UCLA. And the special run was on.”
OSU went to Pullman the next week and downed Washington State 27-13 to go to 5-3.
Parker: “I remember saying on the air ‘This is a great win in Pullman and it sets up the game of a lifetime next week vs. Cal. And I know you all are going to be there at Reser Stadium.’ ”
A punting contest
OSU and Cal alternated punts on the first six possessions of the game, with only the Beavers picking up a first down in that stretch.
Then, late in the first period Boller, who later developed into a first-round NFL draft pick, hit Drae Harris on an out pattern. The receiver turned the corner, eluded a tackler … and was gone. The 83-yard catch and run gave the visitors a 7-0 lead with 1:53 left in the period.
The punting continued. By halftime Fessler had punted eight times and his Cal counterpart, Nick Harris, had punted six times.
And it was a nervewracking exercise for Fessler because Cal had a dangerous punt returner named Deltha O’Neal, who ended the season as the Bears’ leading scorer with six touchdowns on punt, kickoff and interception returns.
“I was worried the whole game about Deltha O’Neal,” Fessler said. “He was a difference-maker, but our punt team did an amazing job.”
O’Neal ultimately returned seven of Fessler’s 14 punts but gained just 31 yards, with a long return of just 11 yards.
And it was a Fessler punt that put the Beavers into position to get on the scoreboard before halftime.
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After a holding penalty stalled a promising Beavers drive at the Cal 44, Fessler’s 40-yard punt was downed at the 4. Two plays later Cal tight end Brian Surgener was flagged for holding in the end zone, which is an automatic safety. And OSU trailed 7-2 at the half in what looked like a baseball score.
Smith hit 5 of 21 passes in the first half. Boller was 5 for 15. Smith was averaging 20 yards per completion, though, because the Beavers’ offense emphasized the long pass.
“We knew we were going to struggle offensively,” Smith said. “And they were, too, because our defense also was really good. It was going to be hard for us to move the ball on 10- or 12-play drives.”
Indeed. Cal had the three longest drives of the game, two that used seven plays and one that consumed nine. But they didn’t score on any of them.
The third period was scoreless, with the six possessions resulting in five punts and an interception. And it was that interception that set up the first turning point for the Beavers.
The fourth quarter
On the final play of the third period Cal faced a second-and-8 play at its own 20. Boller tried to hit Ronnie Davenport, but the ball bounced off his back as he was hit by defensive back Calvin Carlyle. The ball deflected off of Carlyle’s leg and into the arms of linebacker Darnell Robinson. The Beavers took over at the Cal 41.
And scored 7 seconds later. Smith found wide receiver Roddy Tompkins open on a deep out and he scampered 41 yards for a score that put OSU up 8-7. The Beavers went for two points to boost the lead to three, with running back Ken Simonton running it in.
Simonton was a workhorse the entire game, He finished with 134 yards in 31 carries and passed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season.
The Beavers led 10-7.
“What a nail-biter it was,” Fessler said. “How into it everybody was on the sidelines. That was not a feeling we had had as a football team in a long time. Erickson had talked about the streak at halftime. ‘It was our game,’ he said. ‘We were not going to lose this game.’ ”
Cal punted on its next possession and moments later Fessler punted it back, with his 46-yarder forcing O’Neal to make a fair catch at the 14. Three plays later Moala, a little known reserve linebacker delivered the coup de grace. Boller was hit and fumbled trying to escape the OSU defense. Moala was in perfect position. He scooped up the ball, scooted 24 yards for a touchdown, the score moved to 17-7 OSU and Reser Stadium nearly came unglued.
Parker: “You could see that he had a clear path to the end zone. And my voice was giving out. It was my first full season in a long time. And I remember saying ‘Tevita Moala picks it up (and my voice is cracking) and tonight’s going to be the night!’ ”
There were some minor dramatics down the stretch. Fessler’s 12th punt attempt was blocked, but Cal missed a field goal. The Bears then drove near the OSU 25, but Terrence Carroll intercepted a pass in the end zone,
Just 3:12 remained. Minutes later Fessler sent off his final punt, a 48-yarder in which O’Neal was stuffed by Ricky Walker for zero return yards. Three plays later the game ended and the crowd surged onto the field at Reser Stadium.
Fessler: “That was probably the most fun time on the field after a game in a long time. We finally had the monkey off our backs. We did it. We are a program. The locker room was a blast. It was pretty cool.”
Smith:” It was a real rewarding feeling, a real sense of accomplishment. It was a really big deal. The excitement was electric in the building.”
Parker: “I remember saying something like ‘Let the celebration begin. The long streak is over. The Beavers are winners.’ I’ve been told by people who were there that grown men were crying. I didn’t witness it, but I believe it.”
After the game Erickson complimented the Reser fans, saying, “I tell you, these are the greatest fans, the ones who were here to see this thing. When I talked to our players we said this isn’t just for this football team in here. It’s for everybody that’s played at Oregon State, it’s for every fan that’s been through the last 30 years.” This is six wins for all of them.”
There were still two games left on the schedule. The Beavers took out Arizona 28-20 to go to an improbable 7-3, with Parker recalling that four-game streak as “one of the best months I’ve ever had as a broadcaster. That month is etched in my heart forever."
OSU then lost to the Ducks in the Civil War but were rewarded for their 7-4 season with a trip to Hawaii for the Oahu Bowl, the first post-game experience for the program since a loss to Michigan in the 1965 Rose Bowl. The Beavers lost 23-17 to host Hawaii and finished 7-5.
But that only proved to be the beginning of the story. The following season OSU was an even more improbable 11-1, beating the Ducks 23-13 in the most significant Civil War game in the history of the rivalry and then thrashing Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Erickson stayed two more years, finishing 31-17 with the Beavers before moving back to the NFL with the 49ers. Riley returned for his second stint with the program, with the lore of the time being that he called OSU Athletic Director Bob De Carolis within 5 minutes of hearing about Erickson’s departure.
Riley coached the Beavers for 12 largely successful seasons, winning six bowl games in eight tries and twice coming within a Civil War win of going to the Rose Bowl. He then moved on to three modestly successful years at Nebraska.
Erickson, a classic coaching lifer and vagabond, was fired by the 49ers and coached at Idaho, Arizona State, Utah and in a short-lived pro league.
“OSU was devastated by Riley’s departure” after the 5-6 campaign in 1998, Parker said. “They had gotten real close (to breaking the streak) under Riley. There are a lot of what ifs there. If Riley would have stayed would there have been a Fiesta Bowl? And if Erickson had not left for the 49ers … ”
Smith rocketed his way up the coaching pyramid, becoming head coach of the Beavers at age 38. He started with two years as a graduate assistant at OSU, one under Erickson and one under Riley. He then served as an assistant at Idaho, Montana, Boise State and Washington.
“I knew coming in that OSU hadn’t been very good, but I hadn’t realized it had been a quarter of a century,” Smith said. “But I didn’t really understand how much (breaking the streak) meant to the university. I was 18 years old when I came to OSU. As players we couldn’t even comprehend what Beaver Nation had been through. It wasn’t until years afterward that I realized the magnitude of what we had accomplished.”
Fessler thought about taking the same rout as Smith and becoming a graduate assistant. But he was already married and couldn’t afford to work for free. He worked for Merrill Lynch for a bit and is now a financial adviser with Edward Jones in Oregon City. He supervises two former Beavers, lineman Jared Cornell, who has a Sweet Home office, and tight end Tim Euhus, who has an office on Kings Boulevard in Corvallis. Fessler was an assistant coach at Tigard High from 2001-05 and has been at Silverton since 2006, where he worked for seven years with John Mannion, father of the former Beavers’ quarterback Sean Mannion.
Moala, the man who returned the fumble for the clinching TD against Cal, died of cancer in 2013, leaving behind six children.
“I’ve seen a lot of big plays but that one stands out vividly,” Parker said. “The ensuing celebration … I was so happy for everyone, especially Tevita. He was one of the sweetest spirits I’ve ever come across — let alone a student-athlete — in my life.”