Oregon State Tops Irish in Fiesta Bowl

The Oregon State defense made Notre Dame quarterback Matt LoVecchio look like a vulnerable freshman.

Unimpressed with the mystique of the Golden Dome, the fifth-ranked Beavers manhandled LoVecchio and the No. 10 Fighting Irish, finishing off the finest season in school history with a 41-9 Fiesta Bowl victory Monday night.

“When you step on the field, you respect Notre Dame, but when you’re on the field, it’s not about tradition, it’s about making plays,” said Darnell Robinson, who had an interception and a forced fumble. “So as a defense we just wanted to go out and play our game, and dominate.”

LoVecchio Turns Mortal

LoVecchio, who led the Irish to seven straight victories after taking over as the starter in the fifth game, completed just 13 of 33 passes for 138 yards. He also was sacked five times.

Two of LoVecchio’s third-quarter turnovers led to touchdowns: a fumble on a crushing blindside hit by Robinson, then the interception by Robinson, that helped the Beavers break open the game at 34-3.

“We rattled him a little bit, and when we forced him to pass — I don’t want to boast about it — but being the secondary that we are, we took advantage of it,” Oregon State cornerback Keith Heyward-Johnson said.

Oregon State’s quickness up front and in the middle made it one of the best defensive teams in the country all season, but the way the Beavers dominated Notre Dame, on big play after big play, was simply stunning.

Notre Dame, which kept the ball on the ground its last 24 plays in a Nov. 25 victory over Southern California, ran six straight times to open Monday’s game, but gained just 8 yards.

“We felt pretty confident we could defend their passing game, because it’s not too fancy; nothing tricky to it,” said linebacker James Allen. “Our secondary can cover anybody, so once we shut the running game down, from then on it was a walk in the park.”

Beavers Take Early Lead

After Oregon State jumped to a 12-0 lead, LoVecchio was forced to pass more, and the Beavers came after him relentlessly. On one play, defensive end DeLawrence Grant ran all the way across the field to drag him down from behind.

On his fumble, LoVecchio didn’t have a chance. Robinson drilled the 18-year-old quarterback in the back, jarring the ball loose. Eric Manning recovered at the Notre Dame 26.

“To me, that was the turning point of the game,” Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson said.

The Beavers (11-1) were so thoroughly in control, they could get away with some silly mental errors. They were penalized 18 times for 174 yards, both records for the school and the 30-year-old Fiesta Bowl.

Beaver Believers

While many of the Irish fans filed out into the cool night, thousands of orange-clad “Beaver Believers” stayed until the end. Their team had never won even 10 games in a season, and had not won a major postseason game since the 1942 Rose Bowl against Duke — played in Durham, N.C., because of the threat to Pasadena by the Japanese in World War II.

Their large numbers helped give the Fiesta Bowl an attendance of 75,428, the third-largest in the game’s history and largest for a non-national title game.

Quarterback Jonathan Smith was precise all game, completing 16 of 24 passes. His three touchdown passes gave him 20 for the season, breaking the record of 18 set by Erik Wilhelm in 1988.

“I think my confidence grew when I got some wide receivers making plays for me,” Smith said. “They were running wide open half the time. If some of the balls were thrown a little bit better, they could have gotten up and run with them.”

Tailback Ken Simonton also had a record-setting performance, even though he gained only 85 yards, his third-lowest total of the season and 49 below his average. His 1,559 yards broke his own school record of 1,486, set last season.

Oregon State even had it going on special teams, which was supposed to be Notre Dame’s area of expertise. T.J. Houshmandzadeh returned a punt 16 yards, then fumbled the ball at midfield. The ball was picked up by Terrell Roberts and returned 45 yards for a touchdown that made it 27-3.