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2000 flashback: Contender or pretender?
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2000 FLASHBACK

2000 flashback: Contender or pretender?

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It's encore time for Dennis Erickson.

The 53-year-old Oregon State football coach begins year No. 2 in Corvallis and year No. 31 overall with a veteran team, a new contract, and higher expectations from boosters still buzzing from the Beavers' first winning fall (7-5) since 1970 and a Christmas trip to the O'ahu Bowl in Honolulu.

Erickson rolled boxcars last fall, when the Beavers ended their streak of 28 consecutive losing seasons.

• He was the first coach in school history to lead OSU to a bowl in his first season.

• He was a semifinalist for national Coach of the Year honors.

• He was rewarded with a five-year contract that made him the highest-paid coach in OSU history.

It was a spectacular return to college football for a man who had been unceremoniously dismissed the previous year by the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. He termed the season one of the best he's ever had in a decorated coaching career that began in 1969.

But even at the highest moment he remained a grounded, candid realist, ever true to his Scandinavian roots. One successful year won't alter what he's learned through experience: Everybody loves a winner, but losing coaches are yesterday's news.

"One year doesn't make a program," he warned, almost as if to caution the bandwagon jumpers who joined the party last fall during OSU's march to its first postseason action since the 1965 Rose Bowl.

"We don't want to be a fly-by-night outfit; we've got to develop some consistency. Obviously people are going to be looking for that from this program, and nobody will take us lightly this year. Once you get to a point where you've won — whatever goal you have — once you reach it, it's probably harder to stay there than get there.

"It's going to be harder for us. We might have a better team and not win as many games."

No looking back

Last year's 7-5 mark may have ended the embarrassing losing streak, but it only whetted the players' appetites for more success. They're still stinging from a 25-14 loss at Oregon in the regular-season finale, and from an unexpected 23-17 setback to host Hawaii in the O'ahu Bowl.

"The Hawaii game hurt," confirmed junior tailback Ken Simonton, the 5-foot-8, 194-pound powderkeg who holds OSU's all-time career (196) and season (112) scoring and season rushing (1,486) records with two full years remaining.

It was the first non-conference loss Simonton had experienced after nine consecutive victories during his redshirt, freshman and sophomore seasons.

"To do it on national TV in a bowl game, that bothered me," he said. "It's just going to make me hungrier. It was great to be in Hawaii. But it's going to make me mad if we even come anywhere near Hawaii this year."

In fact, the Beavers have concluded every post-practice team huddle with a unison chant of "Rose Bowl."

"There's a different tone. When you haven't done it for 30-odd years, there's still that doubt in the back of your mind. Now we've done it, we've gained some respect and we want to improve on that," junior quarterback Jonathan Smith said.

"There's still that high level of excitement. We realize we can do it, so any sense of doubt is gone. We went to Hawaii, which was a great time, it just didn't turn out great at the end."

Program moving ahead

The Beavers haven't been idle since losing to Hawaii.

• Washington State secondary assistant Craig Bray, a long-time Erickson protegee, was hired to replace Willy Robinson, who left OSU to become the secondary coach for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.

• Former Arizona State offensive coordinator Dan Cozzetto will coach the running backs. Eric Yarber moves from running backs to wide receivers, and offensive coordinator Tim Lappano will work with the quarterbacks this year after tutoring the wide receivers in 1999. Last year's quarterbacks coach, Michael Johnson, is now with the San Diego Chargers.

• Nineteen of the 21 players they signed in February are in fall camp.

• Construction on a new indoor practice facility is scheduled to start next month.

• OSU has sold a record 14,000 season tickets.

"There's no question, as far as our boosters, fans, and coaches in the state, that winning has been an extremely positive thing," Erickson said. "The impact last season had — financially, enrollment-wise, all those things — has been tremendous.

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"I'm more comfortable here because we've been around the players for a year and we've got our system in. I'm more comfortable in my job, totally. We've had great support from the university since the day I got here, and it has continued."

The pieces are in place for another solid season. OSU has six home games; it returns 17 players (eight offense, eight defense) who started at least three games, and both kickers.

Simonton may be the offense's heart and soul, but Smith is the cornerstone. Lappano figures he'll be twice as good as he was in 1999 because Smith now knows Erickson's system inside-out.

"We found a couple flaws in his drop that we worked on and got straightened out. We're moving the pocket for him, which we didn't do much last year," Lappano said.

"That will help him find lanes. We've developed a little better touch on some of the underneath passes. He has such a strong arm that some of the underneath stuff he threw too hard.

"Last year he had his own set of problems, understanding the system, winning a job. I don't think he was real comfortable demanding a lot from the other players because he had to take care of his own job. Now he's going to be the leader on offense."

Carroll anchors a veteran secondary that features 1999 freshman All-American Dennis Weathersby and three-year starter Keith Heyward-Johnson at cornerback and returning starter Calvin Carlyle at free safety. Backup senior cornerback Ricky Walker started in 1998 before being replaced by Weathersby after Walker suffered a shoulder injury just before the 1999 season.

"That's the strength of our team, no doubt," Erickson said.

There are areas of concern.

• The heart of the defense (tackles Aaron Wells and Shawn Ball and middle linebacker Jonathan Jackson) departed.

• Playmaking wide receivers Roddy Tompkins and Imani Percoats graduated after combining for 79 receptions for 1,396 yards and 13 touchdowns. Senior starter Robert Prescott (49-614) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (24-378) and backup Shawn Kintner (11-135) are back but all were inconsistent in 1999. Also, Prescott is suspended until Sept. 30 for an off-campus assault.

• All-league offensive linemen Aaron Koch and Jason White, solid two-year starters, graduated and senior Keith DiDomenico, a preseason all-conference pick, unexpectedly quit the team.

• Sophomore placekicker Ryan Cesca started strong (6 for 8) but was 1 for 7 in the final four games, with two blocks.

"We lose the inside of our defense; we've got to have some guys step up there," Erickson said, referring to sophomore Eric Manning, redshirt freshman Dwan Edwards and senior Ryan Atkinson.

"The offensive line has a pretty good nucleus; they just have to work together. Fessler punted extremely well. Cesca will get better and better every year. We knew we were going to go through (the 1999 inconsistency) because he was a freshman."

At 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, one-time walk-on Smith isn't a prototype Pac-10 quarterback. But he's a productive one; his 3,053 yards led the Pac-10 in 1999, when he had seven interceptions in 425 attempts. He's also 8-7 lifetime as a starter and the Beavers have averaged 30 points in games he's either started or played the majority of the minutes.

"We want to throw the ball more efficiently," Smith said. "And we have to be better in the red zone; we have to score touchdowns. We got in there so often, and came away with three points or a missed field goal. When you put the ball in the end zone, that's seven points and momentum."

Fast start critical

Saturday's opener against Division I-AA Eastern Washington can be used toward bowl eligibility under an NCAA provision that lets I-A teams count one win over a I-AA opponent every four years to attain the winning season necessary for postseason play.

The other non-league games, against Mountain West Conference teams New Mexico and San Diego State, will be testers. The Beavers then open Pac-10 play against long-time tormenters USC and Washington, defending champion Stanford and should-be-better UCLA.

"The key to our start is winning our non-conference games," Erickson said. "That's what it's all about, then you have a chance."

Last season most Pac-10 observers predictably ticketed the Beavers for eighth, ninth or their customary 10th place. Instead they surprised everyone by remaining in the race for second place until the final weekend before the loss at Oregon dropped them to fifth.

This year they won't sneak up on anyone. They've been picked for sixth in the Pac-10 preseason poll, the highest in recent memory.

"I definitely feel we are getting respect," Smith said. "It's kind of a crapshoot with the conference, though; I don't think too many people picked Stanford to go to the Rose Bowl last year.

"You look at those preseason picks, recognize them, but they really don't mean too much."

So, can lightning strike again? Can OSU stay in the upper division and perhaps even move up?

Yes, said Simonton.

"It will go where we want it to go, just like when I came in here," he said. "We have all the pieces we need. I've got some help with Patrick McCall; we have the play-makers.

"We have the pieces we need. It's on us how far we can take it. I don't think there's a limit. I think we're good enough to stay undefeated."

Former Gazette-Times sports reporter Brooks Hatch covered the Beavers throughout the 2000 campaign.

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