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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 6

Trojans Lose Their Grip

College football: Oregon State's 31-21 victory over USC is its first in 33 years, ending losing streak at 26 games.

October 01, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CORVALLIS, Ore. — All afternoon and into the evening, with dark clouds overhead, the storm held off.

USC kept waiting for lightning to strike, for another fourth-quarter rally like the ones that gave the Trojans their last two victories.

But the only rumbling came from Oregon State fans who chanted "It's all over" as time ran out.

And the only thing that poured down were those same fans--a sellout crowd of 33,775--who rushed onto the field after their team had ended a 33-year losing streak to USC, defeating the eighth-ranked Trojans, 31-21, at Reser Stadium on Saturday.

"Cinderella finishes . . . it's not going to happen every week," USC center Eric Denmon said. "They were just hungrier than we were."

The Beavers (4-0) won the Pacific 10 Conference opener with an explosive running game, tailback Ken Simonton rushing for 234 yards and three touchdowns. They won by forcing turnovers and scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter.

They won by doing to USC what the Trojans had done to other teams this season.

Meanwhile, the Trojans fell to 3-1, ending a 26-game winning streak against the Beavers, because they finally fell victim to the missteps that have become all too frequent for them.

This time they could not come back from Carson Palmer's three interceptions. Nor could they overcome Petros Papadakis' fourth-quarter fumble at the USC six-yard line, a turnover that Oregon State converted into a touchdown.

Afterward, Coach Paul Hackett talked about a crucial series in the third quarter with the score tied at 14-14 and USC only four yards from the Oregon State end zone.

On fourth and one, Palmer passed to tight end Antoine Harris for an apparent touchdown, but the Trojans were penalized for delay of game.

Hackett took responsibility, saying he took too long to call the play. Set five yards back, USC chose to attempt a 26-yard field goal and the shaky David Newbury bounced his kick off the right upright.

"We screw up the call and miss the field goal, which gives us no momentum," Hackett said. "It all comes down to that drive."

There were, in truth, plenty of other problems.

All week long, USC players and coaches talked about the importance of a fast start, something they lacked in previous games against Colorado and San Jose State.

But on USC's first possession, Palmer had a pass intercepted along the left sideline. Oregon State quickly drove 59 yards, starting with a series of runs and ending with a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jonathan Smith to Chad Johnson.

The Beavers got the ball back two minutes later and went 76 yards. Simonton bounced off two tacklers on his way to a 20-yard touchdown run.

USC was behind, 14-0.

"You've got to start from the get-go," middle linebacker Zeke Moreno said. "It's frustrating."

Faced with this predicament, the Trojans did something they have become good at, something they did after falling behind to San Jose State. They clawed back into the game.

Palmer started with an 11-yard pass to Kareem Kelly. Oregon State contributed a couple of 15-yard penalties. Then Palmer completed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Matt Nickels, who caught the ball while tiptoeing along the right edge of the end zone.

The 14-7 score hardly reflected the fact that Oregon State had outgained USC, 202 yards to 67, in the first quarter.

Nor did it matter that the Beavers drove right back down field. Because on first down at the USC 17, Trojan defensive tackle Ryan Nielsen burst through the line and nailed running back Patrick McCall in the backfield, forcing a fumble that Moreno picked up and returned 80 yards for the tying touchdown.

Moreno had victimized the Beavers in much the same way last year, scoring twice by returning an interception and a fumble. Hackett thought Saturday's reprise would put USC in the driver's seat.

Then came the third quarter.

The critical delay-of-game penalty and missed field-goal attempt were just more examples of the Trojans missing on scoring opportunities, something that almost cost them the victory over Colorado.

The mistakes were, Palmer said, "a reflection of how we all played. We were so close but we couldn't execute."

And though neither team scored in the third quarter, it was clear the tide was turning against USC, especially after tailback Sultan McCullough had to leave the game because of a twisted knee.

It would only get worse in the fourth quarter.

With the score still tied, an Oregon State punt pinned USC at the one-yard line. The Trojans turned to their most sure-handed back, Papadakis, who had returned to the game after suffering a slight concussion.

Papadakis fumbled on first down.

"I shouldn't have come back into the game," Papadakis said. "That isn't an excuse because I'm not supposed to [fumble] regardless."

The Beavers took advantage, Simonton bulling over from the two. Three minutes later, they added a field goal to widen the gap to 24-14.

On a night with thunderstorms in the forecast, USC had one last chance to pull off a miracle finish.

A bad punt snap gave them the ball deep in Oregon State territory and Palmer, who completed 19 of 38 passes for 282 yards, passed to fullback Chad Pierson for a touchdown. The score was 24-21 with 2:16 to play.

But the Beavers recovered an onside kick and, two plays later, Simonton burst around left end for a 36-yard touchdown run.

"We come out and made plays and did a lot of good things early," Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson said. "Then we came back in the fourth quarter and put it away."

The Trojans were left with a broken streak, their first loss of the season and, most importantly, a step in the wrong direction at the very start of the Rose Bowl race.

Moreno wondered if he and his teammates had learned a lesson. The senior wondered if this might put a stop to all the penalties and turnovers.

"Maybe this will open some players' eyes," Moreno said. "Now we have really got to fight."

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