By JOHN SLEEPER
SEATTLE – Dennis Erickson has more important things on his mind than a homecoming.
The Everett native, former Seattle Seahawks coach and current boss of the 23rd-ranked Oregon State Beavers places infinitely more importance on tonight’s Pacific-10 Conference game with the No. 13 Washington Huskies.
“This is not about Dennis Erickson going back to Seattle,” he said. “This is about Oregon State versus Washington.”
How focused is Erickson? Monday, for about 20 minutes, was the only time Seattle-area media had access to Erickson. Things are getting serious in Corvallis, Ore., now that the Beavers broke a 33-year losing streak Saturday against USC, are ranked in the top 25 for the first time since the end of the 1968 season and have a chance to go 5-0 for the first time since 1939.
“I’m concentrating on what we have to do as a team,” Erickson said.
The Beavers (1-0 Pac-10, 4-0 overall) can do a lot. And against a Washington team (0-1, 3-1) that is fulll of question marks, the Beavers find themselves with a legitimate chance to beat the Huskies for the first time since 1985, a string of 12 games.
In Ken Simonton, the Pac-10’s leading rusher with 709 yards on 125 carries, the Beavers have a ground game that presents a heavy challenge to Washington’s front seven, which had its hands full with Oregon’s Maurice Morris last Saturday. USC, believed by most observers as having the best defense in the conference, yielded 234 yards and three touchdowns to Simonton.
Not bad for someone 5 feet, 8 inches, and not recruited heavily.
“He’s just got tremendous vision,” Erickson said. “Sometimes, I think his size is an advantage for him. I really believe that sometimes, he gets lost in there. Sometimes, it’s hard to see him. But when he sees a hole, he has tremendous explosion. He’s got great lower-body strength and breaks a lot of tackles with his legs. He probably carries the ball too many times for us.”
But the biggest difference with the Beavers is the defense, which Erickson says is as quick as any that he had in Miami. Which is saying something.
OSU recruits with speed in mind. They recruit safeties, beef them up and convert them into linebackers. Recruited linebackers become fast linemen. Sophomore Eric Manning is the heaviest starting defensive lineman at 284 pounds, and end LaDairis Jackson is just 258. Both are quick.
This is a defense that flies around, makes few mistakes and leads the Pac-10 with 17 forced turnovers, including a conference-high 10 interceptions.
“We’re not going to get the 6-2, 300-pounder that everybody wants,” Erickson said. “So we recruit speed. That’s a philosophy that we’re trying to implement here. You’ve got to be realistic about recruiting, what you can do and what you can get. Speed is one of our biggest assets, without a doubt.”
Speed was one way Oregon was able to give the UW running game fits a week ago. By placing eight and nine defenders in the box, the Ducks were able to offset Washington’s offensive line that averages better than 310 pounds a man.
The focus with Washington this week was a commitment to be a better offensive team. Quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo has struggled, with seven turnovers in four games. He hasn’t received much help, with a lack of a big-play wideout, a spotty running game and a line that has not dominated as it did last season.
“I don’t think it’s time to call ourselves a bad team,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. “We have had some great moments so far this season and to have more, we need to improve. The focus needs to be on improving.”
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