By John Sleeper
CORVALLIS, Ore. – In these trying economic times, the Fiesta Bowl representative needn’t have wasted his day.
Having spent perfectly good money for air fare, lodging and a rental car, Mr. Fiesta Bowl, sent to this burg to observe the eighth-ranked Washington Huskies, is flying back to Phoenix today with the Huskies scribbled off his list.
Washington (7-2, 5-2 in the Pacific-10 Conference) did all it could to blow its chance for a Fiesta Bowl bid with a 49-24 woodshed spanking at the hands of Oregon State (4-5, 3-4) Saturday at Reser Stadium.
After vowing to anyone who would listen that they wouldn’t – couldn’t – overlook the underachieving Beavers, the Huskies did just that Saturday, and it cost them dearly.
“They looked right past us,” said OSU linebacker Richard Siegler. “They didn’t look at us. They looked at our record.”
The Huskies still can nail down a berth in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego with a victory over Washington State in Saturday’s Apple Cup. But the Huskies were looking for so much more.
Although they needed help from either UCLA this week or Oregon State next week to pass Oregon for a Pac-10 title, the Huskies certainly had hoped for a successful defense of their crown. Now, with Saturday’s fiasco, that’s out the window.
“We didn’t play well at a time when it matters most,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. “It’s discouraging. But we’re going to rise up. We’re going to play tooth-and-nail against the Cougars and we’re looking forward to that contest.”
From the onset, the fired-up Beavers laid a whipping on Washington not seen since UCLA did the same a month ago. It was the first OSU victory over Washington since 1985. Oregon State also had scored the most points in its history against the Huskies, breaking a 50-year-old record of 40.
“We just weren’t hitting on all cylinders,” UW wideout Todd Elstrom said.
Another stat: OSU’s total was the most the Huskies have given up to a Pac-10 opponent since Cal’s 52-26 drubbing in 1974.
Back to the present, OSU tailback Ken Simonton took out his frustration from a sub-par season with three first-half touchdowns, including the first TD reception of his illustrious career, a 45-yard catch-and-run from Jonathan Smith that put the Beavers up 14-3 in the first quarter.
Simonton finished with 107 yards on 29 carries. His heir-apparent, true freshman Steven Jackson, added 79 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. And Smith, long a thorn in Washington’s side (61-for-99 passing, 1,022 yards and seven TDs in three previous games), completed 18 of 28 passes for 317 yards and two TDs.
“That’s as well as Jonathan’s played in a long time,” said OSU coach Dennis Erickson, an Everett native.
On the other hand it was the worst UW quarterback Cody Pickett has played as a Husky starter.
Pickett, breathtaking since separating his throwing shoulder against USC on Oct. 6, completed just 13 of 32 passes for 160 yards and no TDs.
A crucial second-quarter interception as Washington was marching for a touchdown effectively pummeled the Huskies’ chance to get back into the game. Down 21-10, Washington was on the 10th play of a drive that started on its 28. On second and 10 from the OSU 14, Pickett threw a ball intended for Elstrom that seemed to hang in the air. Oregon State corner Dennis Weathersby stepped in front of Elstrom at the 3 and was pushed out of bounds 73 yards later on the UW 24.
Three plays later, Jackson scored from a yard out to give the Beavers a 28-10 lead with 10 minutes left in the half.
“It was a huge play,” Neuheisel said. “We had a chance to get back in the game. You’re talking about a 14-point swing there, which also carries with it a great deal of strategy in terms of how you’re going to move the ball.”
By that time, all thoughts of running the ball, Washington’s staple in the game plan, went down the plugger. The Beavers’ big lead left the Huskies little choice but to put the ball up, which played directly into OSU’s hands, the Beavers having the top passing defense in the conference.
“When it gets to be 28-10 or 35-10, it gets to be like the UCLA thing (a 35-13 UW loss),” Washington offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson said. “You’re out of two dimensions. You’re in one dimension. You’ve got to throw to score to get back in it.”
It was obvious by that time that no fourth-quarter miracle was going to be possible.
“We never give up,” defensive tackle Larry Tripplett said. “But we’ve never been down that much, either. We were down too much for another comeback.
The collapse wasn’t limited, however, to Pickett. The UW offensive line, so good three games in a row, gave him little protection and committed silly penalties. The offense, defense and special teams all were guilty of damaging penalties – seven for 58 yards before halftime, nine for 78 yards for the game.
Four penalties were personal fouls – two for late hits, two for roughing the passer, which unsettled Neuheisel.
“We played hard, but we didn’t play intelligently at times,” Neuheisel said. “That’s something that we have to address as coaches. We have to conduct ourselves as great ambassadors of our university. We have to understand when and when not to take the shots.”
So what now?
Saturday’s Apple Cup at Husky Stadium becomes little more than an intrastate-rivalry game for the Huskies, although Washington State still has hopes of a Pac-10 title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl or, possibly, another BCS bowl.
A Washington win against the Cougars will likely put the UW into the Dec. 28 Holiday Bowl in San Diego. A loss probably means the Huskies will stay home to play in the Dec. 27 Seattle Bowl. Same for the Cougars – a loss to Washington could send them back to Seattle next month.
All this conjecture, though, was of little interest to Neuheisel on Saturday.
“What this means to our season and postseason really isn’t of concern right now,” Neuheisel said. “What is of concern is figuring out exactly why we didn’t play better and also fixing the things that plagued us today.”