Huskies Provide Passing Challenge

Ohio State, Washington put turbulent off-season behind them as Saturday night's opener looms.

Team Turmoil meet Team Turmoil.

That will be the case Saturday as No. 2 Ohio State hosts 17th-ranked Washington in the season opener for both teams at Ohio Stadium (8 p.m., ABC split-national coverage).

While Ohio State has dealt with controversy surrounding allegations of academic fraud and the amateur status of star tailback Maurice Clarett, Washington has found itself embroiled in a lawsuit with deposed head coach Rick Neuheisel.

The school officially fired Neuheisel in July after it was discovered he participated in a high stakes NCAA men's basketball pool.

Neuheisel has since filed suit against the school and the NCAA. He contends the school breached his contract and the NCAA deliberately smeared him.

In the wake of Neuheisel's ouster, the school elevated longtime offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson to the top job.

Gilbertson, 55, spent seven years previously as a head coach, three at Idaho and four at Cal.

"I am probably the oldest head coach ever hired at Washington, so I am experienced," Gilbertson said. "I've been here 10 years. I'm familiar with the Washington experience. I think I know what the university wants, what our fans want."

Gilbertson inherits 14 starters off last year's UW team that finished a disappointing 7-6. The Huskies' 2002 season began on a sour note with a controversial 31-29 loss at Michigan.

UW then opened Pac-10 play 1-4 before rallying with a three-game Pacific Northwest sweep -- Oregon State, at Oregon and a three overtime thriller over Apple Cup rival and Pac-10 co-champion Washington State.

But the Huskies allowed Purdue to rally from an early deficit and take a 34-24 win in the Sun Bowl.

Now, the Huskies will open the 2003 season at Ohio Stadium against the defending national champions.

"We are pretty much going to know what we're good at and not what we're good at pretty soon, probably by the second series," Gilbertson joked. "But I think in some ways, this game has helped us prepare in the off-season and over the summer.

"We were able to get people's attention because we're playing against the defending national champions, who have 10 of 11 starters back on offense and a lot of great athletes."

Gilbertson understands his team will have little margin for error against OSU.

"You can't fumble and get into that kind of game against them because they will take advantage of those opportunities," he said. "They're not going to turn it over and they're going to do well in the kicking game.

"I know those things are obvious in any game, but if we make mistakes we'll be playing into their hands."

Inside The Offense

The key names on offense are the passing combination of quarterback Cody Pickett (6-4, 215) and wide receiver Reggie Williams (6-4, 220).

Pickett threw for more yards last season than any other Pac-10 quarterback in history. He completed 365 of 612 passes (59.6 percent) for 4,458 yards with 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Pickett is already UW's career passing leader with 6,873 yards.

Williams was on the business end of many of Pickett's passes, catching 94 for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns to earn All-American kudos. Williams is UW's career leader in catches (149) and receiving yards (2,427).

Junior Charles Frederick (6-0, 180) moves into the starting lineup after catching 45 passes for 651 yards and two TDs.

Tailback Rich Alexis (6-0, 220) returns in the backfield, although he has been slowed by shoulder and off-the-field problems. He carried for 688 yards and scored 10 TDs a year ago.

The Huskies come into 2003 intent on improving their rushing game -- UW was ninth in the Pac-10 at 74.5 yards rushing per contest. Alexis went for over 100 yards in his team's final scrimmage, an indication that part of the offense could be clicking.

"We think we'll do a better job of running the ball," Gilbertson said. "But we still haven't gone out and run the ball on anyone's defense yet, either.

"I think last year, we did a lot with three wide receivers and one back. This year, I think we'll do more with a two-back set. We also want to run two tight ends at times as well. We would like to balance those three groups instead of going three wides all the time."

Washington will be without starting fullback Zach Tuiasosopo, who will be suspended for the first three games. Sophomore Ty Eriks (6-2, 235) will replace him.

Sophomore Joe Toledo (6-6, 290) moves into the lineup at tight end.

Three starters return on the offensive line -- tackles Khalif Barnes (6-5, 300) and Todd Bachert (6-4, 300) and guard Nick Newton (6-5, 330).

But Bachert will be slowed and may not start after undergoing shoulder surgery.

"Todd is still recovering from the surgery," Gilbertson said. "He is not listed as a starter for this week."

Inside The Defense

Washington was fourth in the Pac-10 in total defense, allowing 357.2 yards per game a year ago. Ten of UW's opponents scored 26 or more points a year ago.

The Huskies were decent against the run, ending up 11th nationally in that category at 97.7 yards per game. But they were a distant 105th in pass defense, allowing opposing teams 259.5 yards through the air.

Two starters return on the defensive line. They are tackle Terry Johnson (6-4, 285) and end Manase Hopoi (6-4, 260). A third returning starter, tackle Josh Miller, is sidelined with back problems.

"Our defensive line took a hit this summer when we lost Josh," Gilbertson said. "We will not have the line we thought we were going to have. Terry Johnson has had a great camp, but we don't have the experience or depth there we thought we were going to have."

Two linebackers return to the lineup -- outside LB Greg Carothers (6-2, 220) and middle LB Marquis Cooper (6-4, 215). Cooper tied for the team lead in tackles last year with 100.

Two starters return in the secondary. They are cornerback Derrick Johnson (6-0, 185) and free safety James Sims (6-1, 195). Senior Roc Alexander (6-0, 190) figures to fill the vacant corner spot.

Johnson led the team with five interceptions and 10 pass breakups a year ago. Sims split time with Jimmy Newell (6-1, 195), who was sidelined with ankle problems.

"Jimmy had a great camp," Gilbertson said. "He is going into a game healthy, which is unusual for him. I'm excited to see him healthy."

Alexander was a starter two years ago, but missed as many as seven games last year due to shoulder problems.

Sophomore Evan Benjamin (6-0, 210) will likely move into the strong safety role. He had 46 tackles in a reserve role a year ago.

In terms of special teams, Frederick is a dangerous return man. Freshman Sean Douglas will handle the punting chores, while junior Evan Knudson and true freshman Michael Braunstein will share the kicking duties.

"That competition may go through the pregame warmups," Gilbertson said.

Squib Kicks

* Ohio State holds a 6-3 all-time edge in the series with Washington, including 3-1 in Ohio Stadium.

The teams last met on Sept. 16, 1995, in Columbus, when OSU prevailed 30-20. Eddie George had 36 carries for 212 yards and two touchdowns in that win.

A year earlier, OSU dropped a 25-16 decision at Seattle. In 1993, OSU downed UW 21-12 in a night game at Ohio Stadium.

In a similar situation, OSU played Washington in 1969 as a defending national champion. Woody Hayes' Buckeyes went to Seattle that year and rolled 41-14.

* This will be the sixth night game ever in the 81-year history of Ohio Stadium. OSU is a perfect 5-0 in night games in the Horseshoe, defeating Pittsburgh in 1985, Washington in 1993, Wyoming in 1997, UCLA in 1999 and Northwestern in 2001.

* Gilbertson had kind words for OSU head coach Jim Tressel.

"I believe he came out and visited us at Washington in 1990 or 1991," Gilbertson said. "He was at I-AA (Youngstown State) at that time and we knew about the job he was doing.

"He won a lot of national championships at Youngstown State and he's now won one at Ohio State. Whatever the recipe he has, it's working."

* Ohio State has won 22 of its last 24 season openers, dating to a 1978 loss to Penn State at Ohio Stadium.

The losses were both in Kickoff Classics, in 1986 against Alabama and 1999 against Miami (Fla.).

*Since Ohio Stadium opened in 1922, OSU is 73-6-2 in home openers.

The Buckeyes won their first 21 home openers at the Horseshoe before a 1943 loss -- as the defending national champions, no less -- to the Iowa Seahawks during World War II.

OSU also dropped home openers in 1950 to SMU, 1957 to Texas Christian, 1965 to North Carolina, 1967 to Arizona and 1978 to Penn State. The Buckeyes opened the home slate with ties against Missouri in 1946 and Texas Christian in 1961.

* Some notable Washington numbers: The Huskies are 39-37-1 all-time against the Big Ten after going 0-2 (Michigan, Purdue) a year ago … Washington has opened on the road 10 times in the last 27 years, going 6-4 in those games … UW is 10-11 against top-10 ranked opponents since 1990 … Since 1936, the Huskies are 2-19 against defending national champions.

* There are some ties on both sides of this rivalry. Longtime UW defensive line coach Randy Hart was a three-year letterwinner and a member of OSU's 1968 national championship team. He also coached at OSU under Earle Bruce from 1982-87, working three of those seasons alongside Tressel.

UW running backs coach Chuck Heater, a Michigan grad, also spent one year on the same OSU staff as Tressel and Hart.

OSU defensive line coach Jim Heacock held the same position at Washington under longtime UW head coach Don James from 1983-87.

Tressel, himself, is a cousin of Carol James, Don James' wife.

* OSU is 4-2 all-time in the month of August, all since 1986. For UW, last year's season opening loss at Michigan is the school's only game ever in August.

* OSU will return the favor for this game by playing at Seattle in 2007.

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