Remembering the Pac-12's painful 'what if?' game between Oregon State and Washington

Led by second-year coach Dennis Erickson, 2000 was a banner season for Oregon State. Jeff Gross/Allsport/Getty Images

History is written by winners. College football's vast, speculative arrays of "What ifs?" -- the smug will tell you -- are for losers.

But suspend that dismissive realism for a moment and harken back to the best game of the 2000 season, one that just about no one saw, and consider the Cinderella story that never happened, when just a few plays here or there could have birthed the most shocking endgame to a season in college football history.

When Oregon State missed a 46-yard field goal with 14 seconds left at Washington on Oct. 7, and the Huskies prevailed 33-30, the longstanding natural order of college football remained intact while most of the nation slept. It was 1:35 a.m. on the East Coast, meaning that newspapers wouldn't tell their readers about the twists and turns that produced 51 first downs and 978 yards of offense.

Few would take note of the emerging flash of an Oregon State receiver named Chad Johnson, or the nasty battle in the trenches that included multiple, er, below-the-belt attacks on the Huskies.

While both the Beavers and Huskies entered and exited the game nationally ranked, both were marginal to the national picture at that moment. Moreover, the result couldn't have been more predictable as Washington had won 13 in a row and 23 of 24 in the series.

Neither team, however, would lose again. Both would decisively win BCS bowl games and finish ranked in the top-five of the final AP poll, with Northwest rival Oregon finishing ranked No. 7.

Doesn't that sound strange?

Neither Washington nor Oregon State has been nationally relevant since then, and the Northwest has been pretty much about only Oregon for more than a decade.

Perhaps that's about to change. The Huskies and Washington State -- the Cougars won 30 games from 2001-2003 -- seem poised to again cycle up to challenge the Ducks, echoing the Northwest's most notable previous uptick.

Just more than two months after the Beavers trudged off the field in defeat at Husky Stadium, ABC analyst Ed Cunningham -- a former Washington center, no less -- announced a reasonable foundation for "What if?" speculation after witnessing the Beavers stomp a cleat print on Notre Dame's collective, golden forehead in a 41-9 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

Nearly 16 years later, he immediately recalled his thinking. "I said on the broadcast that this might be the best team in the nation," Cunningham said.

What's remarkable is Cunningham's statement was even more difficult to fathom then than it is today.

Oregon State wasn't just an upstart in 2000. It was a resurrection that arguably matched what Bill Snyder did for once-woeful Kansas State. The Beavers went 7-5 in 1999 in their first year under Dennis Erickson, ending an NCAA record of 28 consecutive losing seasons. The Beavers went 11-1 in 2000. Their highest previous win total as a member of the Pac-8/10 was eight, in 1964. Not only was their No. 4 final ranking their highest in school history, it was their first final ranking in 30 years.

When Cunningham, a member of the Huskies' 1991 national title team under Don James, played against Oregon State, things were much different than in 2000.

"Oregon State was at such a lower level -- there was talk about should they even be in the conference at that time," he said. "You would go down there and you would feel bad for them. [Oregon State's stadium] felt like some aluminum stands had been slid together in the parking lot. My senior year, they scored first and it ended up being 58-6.

"We honestly felt bad for them. It wasn't, 'Let's go kick these guys' assess again.' It was like, 'It stinks for these guys.'"

Washington had little in common with the Beavers. It was a national power under James in the 1980s and '90s and it seemed to be emerging from severe NCAA sanctions in year two under Rick Neuheisel. The Huskies were ranked 13th in the preseason and was the Pac-10 preseason favorite. Further, they already had beaten then-No. 4 Miami 34-29.

Washington, however, played host to the unbeaten, 23rd-ranked Beavers a week after losing 23-16 at No. 20 Oregon. So the game felt like a must-win for Rose Bowl hopes.

Oregon State arrived in Seattle coming off a 31-21 win over No. 8 USC, breaking a 26-game losing streak against the Trojans.

"To beat USC to start the Pac-10 season, we knew right then that we were good. We didn't have to say it any more, OK? It was on. That was the SAT. That was the entrance exam."
Oregon State running back Ken Simonton

"To beat USC to start the Pac-10 season, we knew right then that we were good," Oregon State running back Ken Simonton said. "We didn't have to say it any more, OK? It was on. That was the SAT. That was the entrance exam."

This was a problem for Neuheisel. He had to convince his team Oregon State was good. A year before, the Huskies had rolled over the Beavers in Corvallis 47-21, a game they led 45-zip at halftime.

The Beavers' 1999 recruiting class, about a quarter of whom would have NFL careers, had matured, including a handful of juco transfers such as receiver Touraj "T.J." Houshmandzadeh and defensive ends DeLawrence Grant and LaDairus Jackson. The addition of the one-and-done Johnson in 2000 meant efficient, veteran quarterback Jonathan Smith had two future NFL Pro Bowl players at receiver.

"I thought they were unbelievable," Neuheisel said. "You're watching these guys on film and you're going, 'S--- ... these guys are really good.'"

The Huskies heard the urgency in their coaches' voices. Still, this was Oregon State, right?

"You go into the game thinking, 'This is a good team,'" Washington offensive tackle Elliot Silvers said. "But at the same time, we hadn't lost to Oregon State in ... I have no idea. You'll have to look it up."

Silvers is a good representative for that Washington team, for he was in the middle of a moment that defined the Huskies well before the season began. The previous spring, he was the alleged instigator of a massive, team-wide brawl that probably tiptoed over the line from misdemeanor to felony.

"I remember that like yesterday," defensive tackle Larry Tripplett said. "It's funny you mentioned Elliot Silvers, because he started it. ... He was my teammate and he's my friend and I love him, but during practice, I hated that guy. He kept on holding me and shoving me, so I said, 'This is it.'"

Fights happen in football practices on a regular basis, but this one was just a bit longer, just a bit more intense and just about everyone joined in.

"It was 11-on-10 because I wasn't in it," Washington quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo said. "I remember seeing Tripplett jump over the pile. Then Rick [Neuheisel] blows the whistle and goes, 'Everyone on the goal line!' I laugh about it. I don't condone it, but that was our team in a nutshell."

Tuiasosopo, now UCLA's quarterbacks coach, was the biggest star in the Pac-10 in 2000. The dual-threat QB had made a name for himself the previous year against Stanford when he became the first Division I player to pass for 300 yards and rush for 200 yards in a single game and he would end up finishing eighth in the 2000 Heisman Trophy vote.

His first hint that these Beavers were going to be different was an apparently injured player relentlessly trash-talking him before the game.

"This guy is not going to come and talk a bunch of crap in our stadium and get away with it," Tuiasosopo said. "That kind of helped set my jaw."

Neuheisel and Erickson were both second-year coaches, and their styles both were in stark contrast to the men who preceded them. Neuheisel replaced Jim Lambright, an old-school coach who led with defense and preached toughness. Erickson replaced Mike Riley, who paired an eye for diamond-in-the-rough talent with his nice-guy desire to build a family atmosphere around the program.

Neuheisel, hired away from Colorado, brought offensive creativity and a desire to loosen up a hard-nosed team that often played tight.

"When Neuheisel came, he brought back the fun of the game," Tripplett said. "Lambright had recruited a lot of tough, disciplined, hard guys. It was the perfect mix."

Erickson was a big name who'd won a national title at Miami and coached in the NFL. His teams also were known for being edgy and for not lacking in confidence.

"Erickson brought a type of swagger and belief," said cornerback Keith Heyward-Johnson, now an assistant at Louisville. "He brought in that fighter's mentality and we embraced it. Practice wasn't civil at all. There were a lot of fights. I vividly remember T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] getting tackled by that ponytail he always had sticking out.

"Erickson preached a type of attitude that was pretty much point blank, 'F--- them. We're going to grind it out and be tough and we're going to kick people's ass.'"

Huskies running back Rich Alexis scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to give Washington a 26-21 lead early in the fourth quarter, but then things got weird in the trenches, where things had been fiesty all evening. After some pushing and shoving and gesticulating, Oregon State star defensive tackle Eric Manning was ejected.

"I just lost my head on one of the plays," Manning said. "One of the guys was punching me in the ribs, and I lost my cool and I did a dirty play and got kicked out of the game."

Said Tuiasosopo: "He grabbed [Washington offensive guard] Chad Ward [below the belt]. He got kicked out after he grabbed me [below the belt]! I don't know how the referee saw it, but he must have trusted what I said."

Heyward-Johnson sighed, "I remember looking up at the Jumbotron and, clearly as day, they caught him. He punched them [below the belt]."

As Manning trudged off the field, Erickson went bonkers on the sidelines, and an already intense atmosphere in front of 73,145 fans ratcheted up in volume.

"Coach Erickson was hot. Everybody was hot," Manning said. "The crowd was screaming as I was walking out, 'Yeeeaaaaah!' It was one of the downest moments of my life, having to come out in street clothes to watch the end of the game. It was heartbreaking. I still blame myself for that."

Washington took advantage of Manning's absence as it rushed for 281 yards and went up 33-23 with just less than eight minutes remaining. A minute later, Smith would silence the Husky Stadium crowd when, despite losing a shoe, he found Johnson for an 80-yard touchdown.

"I threw it not totally knowing he could run underneath it," said Smith, now Washington's offensive coordinator. "But, of course, he could run underneath anything."

The Beavers got the ball back with less than five minutes left and drove 60 yards to the Huskies' 25-yard line. They faced a second-and-1 with 42 seconds left and no timeouts. They were within field goal range to force overtime and figured to have at least a couple of shots at a game-winning touchdown.

Seemingly for the first time, the idea of Oregon State winning became real. It was tough for the Huskies and their fans to watch, but it was particularly tough for Tripplett, who couldn't stay on the field to help his defense because he was suffering severe cramps.

The greatest player in Washington history, former All-Everything defensive lineman Steve Emtman, was also on the Huskies sideline.

"So I'm on the sideline throwing down Gatorade -- my fingers were actually locking up and bending together -- and Oregon State is driving," Tripplett recalled. "[Emtman] grabbed me by my facemask and said, 'We are not losing this F'ing game with you sitting on the sideline!' He throws me into the game. I remember getting into my stance, cramping up, my hands, my hamstrings, and I just said, 'I've got to give it everything I've got.'"

The Beavers, knowing a first-down would stop the clock, handed off to Simonton on a draw play, but he was tackled for a 4-yard loss by Tripplett, who exploded through a block like it wasn't even there. That forced Oregon State to spike the ball on third down and attempt a 46-yard field goal.

"When we got stuffed, it got us out of whack," Smith said. "We probably could have run a play on third down to get the first down instead of spiking it."

Simonton admits he's thought about that play a lot. Maybe running power or a counter or even throwing might have been better? Ultimately, he said, "[Tripplett] just made a great play."

Ryan Cesca, who would miss only three field goals all season and earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors, was wide right for the tie. Game over.

In 2013, Oregon State's SB Nation site, "Building the Dam," ranked the "seven most painful Beaver football losses of the modern era," and this game ranked only fifth.

But that doesn't tell the whole story, as the writer noted, "[The] single biggest 'What If' game in Oregon State history. If I could go back in time and change the outcome of one sporting event in my entire lifetime, this would be the one."

The reasoning is simple. If the Beavers had won, they would have finished undefeated and would have played fellow unbeaten Oklahoma for the national title, displacing one-loss Florida State in the BCS championship matchup in the Orange Bowl. While fictional games are pretty worthless, you can make a strong argument -- as strange as it sounds -- that the Beavers were a more physically talented team than the Sooners.

Oregon State, which led the Pac-10 in both scoring offense and scoring defense, would produce 12 NFL draft choices over the next four years (it's worth noting it had produced just four over the previous four years). Oklahoma would produce 11. Seven of those drafted Beavers would play at least four seasons, including Johnson, Houshmandzadeh, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and linebacker Nick Barnett.

"I think by the end of the year we were as good as anybody in the country. If we had a playoff at that time and we got in it, I'm not sure we wouldn't have won it."
Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson

"I think by the end of the year we were as good as anybody in the country," Erickson said. "If we had a playoff at that time and we got in it, I'm not sure we wouldn't have won it."

The Beavers manhandling of No. 10 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl certainly won them a fan.

"We knew they were good, very fast, but we didn't know they'd be as big or as physical as they were," then-Fighting Irish coach Bob Davie said. "I had a lot of conversations with Dennis [afterward] and he told me that might be as good a football team as he's ever had, including those Miami teams."

As for the Washington players, they have no problem admitting the Beavers were more physically talented. They do counter, as the game's winners, that they were just a bit tougher. They also point out that they have their own place in the long line of teams occasionally dabbling in the "What if?" exercise.

Said Tuiasosopo: "We still shake our heads over that Oregon game. So many missed opportunities."