TEMPE, Ariz. -- Oregon State players woke up Tuesday and found that they hadn't been dreaming after all: They really did whip Notre Dame 41-9 in the Fiesta Bowl.
"It really is kind of a shock to come in and dominate a team like Notre Dame," said middle linebacker Richard Seigler. "A lot of people are thinking, `Is Oregon State really a powerhouse?"'
It is, indeed, and could be for the next few years. If not for a 33-30 loss at Washington in October, the Beavers (11-1) likely would be in the Orange Bowl on Wednesday night, playing for the national title. The 2001 championship game will be the Rose Bowl, and the Beavers already are dreaming big.
"We definitely can keep it going," Seigler said. "Next year we're going to set the peak higher for ourselves. We're going to try to bring more to the table and get to that national championship."
Oregon State's rise over the last three years has been nothing short of astonishing. Former coach Mike Riley started it all, recruiting then-unknowns Jonathan Smith and Ken Simonton and guiding the Beavers to a 5-6 record in 1998, the most wins for the school since 1971.
Dennis Erickson brought in some standout recruits, upgraded facilities and convinced the team that its losing tradition was another generation's problem. The Beavers went 7-5 in 1999, breaking an NCAA-record streak of 28 straight losing seasons.
This season, aided by a soft non-conference schedule and Simonton's school-record 1,559 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, the Beavers reached double-digit victories for the first time and climbed to a school-best No. 5 ranking.
"That has to be one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history," said strong safety Terrence Carroll, a senior who was on the 1996 team that finished 2-9. "We definitely took a leap under Erickson. He shot us up that ladder real quick."
Erickson spurned interest from LSU and USC by signing a seven-year extension in early December. After stops at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami and the Seattle Seahawks, he has spoken of wanting to put down roots and leave a legacy of winning in Corvallis.
"I've been saying that all along, and people are finally starting to realize I've been telling the truth," Erickson said.
His players say Erickson's leadership is the bedrock of a program that, as recently as the mid-1990s, appeared better off in Division I-AA.
"It was crucial, because he's been the key factor in all of this," said Smith, who threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns Monday night. "So for him to come back and say, `Hey, I'm going to stay here,' hopefully it continues our momentum that we've got going. I don't see why it wouldn't, because he's such a special guy."
Next year the Beavers will lose six starters on defense, including linebacker Darnell Robinson - who had a forced fumble and an interception against Notre Dame - and end DeLawrence Grant, a likely first-round NFL draft pick. On offense, the Beavers lose three offensive lineman and their four best four receivers: Chad Johnson, Robert Prescott, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Marty Maurer.
But they still have Smith and Simonton, who accounted for 84 percent of the Beavers' total yards and helped them average 33.3 points per game.
"We've got to find some wide receivers to play, but beyond that I feel good about our offense," Smith said.
Perhaps the moment that best reflected the team's amazing resurgence came in the fourth quarter of Monday's game. After taking control with a 29-point third period, Erickson pulled his starters, and the Beavers' sideline turned into a gleeful bull session between players, school officials and alumni.
"I'm thinking to myself, `Wow, how many times do you get this chance?"' said athletic director Mitch Barnhart. "In a huge game like this, where you have a chance to sort of hang out? It was pretty cool."