A Game, Anyone?

Has there ever been a bigger season opener for Washington? On the national stage, ESPN GameDay, on the road in front of 100,000-plus fans, against the defending national champions? Can it get any bigger than this? Can the Huskies pull off a major upset?

#17 Washington (0-0) at #2 Ohio State (0-0)
Saturday, August 30 - 5:06 p.m.(PDT) – ABC TV
Ohio Stadium – Columbus, OH
Series All-time: Ohio State leads, 6-3-0
Last Meeting: September 16, 1995 – Ohio State 30, Washington 20
Line: Ohio State by 9

Keith Gilbertson
Keith, let's summarize today's action so far.

For Washington, charging that he participated in NCAA basketball pools then initially lied about it, (former) head coach Rick Neuheisel is notified on June 8th by UW athletic director Barbara Hedges of her intent to terminate his contract with just cause, setting off a seven-week circus of wrangling, lawyer-ese, and media scrutiny, devouring the Husky summer news. Keith Gilbertson is appointed - since by contract Washington could not name new head coach until Neuheisel's termination process completed - "Supervisor of the Football Program", an NCAA first. It takes until July 29th for the firing to complete, at which time Gilby is finally named head coach. Then on August 5th, Josh Miller and Junior Coffin – both probable D-line starters – are declared out for the season due to injury.

While over on the Ohio State sideline, All-American tailback Maurice Clarett was brought up for academic fraud charges by former teaching assistant Norma McGill, stemming from preferential treatment in class. He also provided excessive and false charges to investigators in the wake of a break-in of a car that was loaned to him from a local dealership. As a result, he has been suspended by the University and will not play. Meanwhile, ten other Buckeyes are found to have illegally signed autographs while working at a charity function, and were ruled ineligible by the NCAA until their re-instatement last week. Not to mention, more players could be implicated in an ongoing academic investigation.

Whoa Nellie, it's been a tight one so far, folks. And we have yet set foot on the gridiron.

Jim Tressel
(Getty Images)
That finally changes on Saturday, when the two tradition-rich schools can spend an evening forgetting about their off-season woes and doing something to which they are more accustomed - busting some heads. And certainly adding to the spice of opening week is Ohio State beginning defense of their 2002 NCAA championship, in front of 100,000 or so Buckeye crazies. Some coaches would pooh-pooh any notion of comparisons, but Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel isn't backing away from the pressure to live up to last year's 14-0 squad.

"We have a long way to go from a maturity standpoint," Tressel stressed during fall camp. "I don't think we're better than last year's team – not yet. But I think we might be deeper."

"We need to be aware that we'll have a bulls-eye on our back every week. We will need to keep focus on the task at hand - that's going to be our biggest challenge."

For Washington, and for Coach Keith Gilbertson's Husky debut, it will be a whole different challenge – but one that Gilbertson says could also be beneficial. "We'll know, maybe by the end of the first quarter, just what things we can do well and what we can't," Gilbertson surmises. "Ohio State is just a sound football team in all facets. They're physical, and they have an intimidating stadium. They play a style of play where you screw up a little bit and drop the ball a couple times, you'll have difficulty ever getting it back."

Then, full of jest, and alluding to last year's lid-lifter in Ann Arbor, Gilbertson adds, "I wonder when WE get a home game to open the season?"

Next year, coach, when Fresno State comes to call. But this year, there's a much bigger State to worry about first.

TEAM (2002): 29.3 points, 364.5 yards (191.3 rush, 173.2 pass) 
RUSHING:     Lydell Ross 166-619-6 TD (3.7), long 36
             Maurice Hall 78-370-4 TD (4.7), long 28
PASSING:     Craig Krenzel 148-249-7 (.594), 2110 yards, 12 TD
RECEIVING:   Michael Jenkins 61-1076-6 TD (17.6), long 50
             Chris Gamble 31-499-0 TD (16.1), long 57
             Ben Hartsock 17-137-2 TD (8.1), long 20

The 2002 Buckeyes were similar in a lot of ways to Washington in 2000 – they won a lot of close ones with guile and a bit of magic, and then gelled big time in the late going. But unlike that Husky team, Ohio State returns most of their two-deep from a year ago. And that should help lessen the effects of the mercurial Clarett's unavailability.

QB Craig Krenzel
(Getty Images)
Senior quarterback Craig Krenzel is 15-1 as the Buckeyes' starter. The co-captain's biggest tangibles aren't found in numbers, but in leadership. His 2,110 passing yards a year ago were adequate enough for a power team, and his .585 career completion percentage ranks him second all-time in school history, but without having Clarett to hand the ball to he could be called on to shoulder a bigger load. Ohio State threw almost exclusively during their spring game – by design. But Krenzel can/will certainly run it when duty calls – his 81 yards rushing and two TDs in the Fiesta Bowl led both teams.

Krenzel will have plenty of weapons. Senior co-captain Michael Jenkins had a huge 2002, and his 6-5 frame will be tough for the Husky corners to deal with. Jenkins has a gaudy 18.8 yards-per-reception career mark. Two-way Heisman candidate Chris Gamble is not listed in the offensive two-deeps, but you can bet he will see plenty of time at flanker. He averages 16.1 per catch, and the cornerback will probably see the field for at least 90 plays – if it's not too humid. Senior Drew Carter is the speed guy (4.34 in the 40) on the wing, while freshman wide-out Santonio Holmes totaled over 200 all-purpose yards in the Buckeye spring game. Tight end Ben Hartsock, another senior, is a pre-season all-conference selection in the Big Ten.

A blood clot will shelve tackle Ivan Douglas for the season – his second such setback – otherwise the Buckeyes would have boasted an all-Senior offensive line. But sophomore Rob Sims stepped in ably for Douglas last year, so the interior wall shouldn't shirk a beam. Center Alex Stepanovich is being mentioned in Remington Award circles, and tackle Shane Olivea is an Outland candidate. As a group, the front five have 110 starts between them, and average 315 pounds per man.

OT Shane Olivea
(Getty Images)
That line should make life easier for Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross – a pair of junior tailbacks who will toil in the half-season absence of Clarett. Hall will double as a primary kick-returner, averaging 5.0 yards on his 87 career carries. Ross has more game experience, with over 1,000 career yards and 12 touchdowns in his two seasons. Both players experienced dings during fall camp, and it will be a matter of who's healthier. Regular starting FB Branden Joe will miss a month healing from a torn pectoral muscle, so sophomore Brandon Schnittker will get the blocking-back call.

GAME OUTLOOK: With eight seniors on the first unit, plus another three on the second team, there may not be a more experienced unit in Division 1 football – it's a lottery hope to think they will beat themselves. And if that giant front imposes its' will on the Husky D-line, it could be a long evening for our heroes. The Washington interior must be able to penetrate at some point to stop the OSU power game.

TEAM (2002):    13.1 points, 320.9 yards (77.7 rush, 243.2 pass)
TACKLES/TFL:    Dustin Fox 84/5.0, Robert Reynolds 62/3.5,
                Will Smith 59/12.5
PASSES DEF/INT: Dustin Fox 17/3, Chris Gamble 10/4, Simon Fraser 5/0
SACKS:          Darrion Scott 8.5, Will Smith 5.5, Simon Fraser 5.0

The defending champs must replace five defenders that are now in the NFL - including both safeties - but like the offense it will all begin up front. And with three seniors (who a year ago combined for 35 tackles-for-loss, 20 sacks, and bothered Miami like no other line) leading the way, it isn't a reach for Ohio State to lay claim as the top defensive line in the country.

NT Tim Anderson
(Getty Images)
Darrion Scott, who led the way last season with 8.5 sacks, moves inside to make room for junior Simon Fraser (12 of his 20 tackles went for a loss), while Tim Anderson (making his 24th start) is the 290-pound bull in the middle. Defensive end Will Smith (118 career tackles) is a can't-miss NFL'er who opted to return for his senior season rather than test the pro waters.

Sophomore A.J. Hawk and senior Fred Pajac will be asked to fill some huge shoes at linebacker, though both have significant game experience. And they have 38-game veteran Robert Reynolds (85 career tackles) joining them. Sophomore Mike D'Andrea appears to be a star in the making and will see plenty of time.

The new safeties will be senior Will Allen (3 career INTs as a nickel back) and freshman Brandon Mitchell, who will see his first game action after red-shirting a year ago. No inexperience problems exist at the corners, where the all-American Gamble and junior Dustin Fox (112 career tackles) rule the roost. Gamble had four interceptions in his first year starting on defense, and spent most of his time on that side of the ball during the spring. As a unit, the Ohio State DBs picked off 18 passes a year ago.

GAME OUTLOOK: Obviously, the interior is the Buckeye strong suit. Washington wants so much to run the ball better than they did a year ago, out of sheer embarrassment over last year's numbers. But it's difficult to see this game as the break-out for a new-found ground attack – the Huskies averaged 77 rushing yards last year, and Ohio State gave up the very same number. It's a bad combination. No, it looks like a controlled passing game might be the ticket.

TEAM (2002):   13.1 points, 320.9 yards (77.7 rush, 243.2 pass)
PLACEKICKING:  Mike Nugent 25-28 FG (.893, long 51), 45-46 XP
PUNTING:       (New punter this season)
KICK RETURNS:  Maurice Hall 19-22.8 (long 45), 0 TD
               Chris Gamble 11-23.0 (long 56), 0 TD
PUNT RETURNS:  Chris Gamble 35-8.4 (long 27), 0 TD

PK Mike Nugent
(Getty Images)
Just a junior, All-American place-kicker Mike Nugent already holds nine Ohio State school records. He hit his first 23 field goals in a row last year before missing two at Illinois – and he didn't miss at all last year at Ohio Stadium. He hit three from outside 40 yards against Washington State. Kyle Andrews returns as the snapper, though there will be a new holder in senior B.J. Sander, who lost the starting punting job two years ago to the now-departed Andy Groom. Sander has averaged 39.9 yards per boot in his three seasons.

The oft-mentioned Chris Gamble will handle most of the returning duties, and is looking to break his first career one for a score. The Buckeyes blocked four punts last year, though their return defense was only average (22 yards allowed per kickoff, 12.8 yards per punt).

GAME OUTLOOK: We all know the score. Nugent is an All-American, and Washington has yet to name a kicker at press time. Hopefully they don't have to try both, because that will mean that the first one . . . didn't. Both teams have new punters, though Sander has seen action before. It will be exciting to see Gamble and Frederick try and electrify their squads.
KIBBLES AND BITS: Déjà vu? The last time Washington played in Columbus in 1995, they happened to be the 17th-ranked team in the country – and were 8 ½-point underdogs . . . This is the first of five straight home games for Ohio State, who haven't lost a home opener since 1978. They are 5-0 in home night games, and are 5-0 when ESPN shows up in Columbus for GameDay. The Buckeyes sport a 48-23-10 record all-time against PAC-10 foes, while the Huskies are 39-37-1 collectively against the Big Ten . . . So, EPSN's Lee Corso forecasts Washington to win the PAC-10. Oh joy . . . Four of Washington's games are already slated for national TV. After Ohio State, the Huskies are TV-set against Indiana (FOXNet, a 1:00 PM kickoff next Saturday), USC (October 25 on ABC at 12:30) and Oregon (November 1 on TBS at 7:00 PM) . . . Every team in the PAC-10 has had at least one losing season in conference play over the past three years – except Washington, whose madcap three-week NW run a year ago propelled them to a 4-4 finish and extended their current streak to 14-straight non-losing seasons. Overall, the Huskies are working on a 26-year non-losing streak, third-best in nation (behind Nebraska and Michigan, and tied with Florida State). Their last losing season? Don James' second Husky team went 5-6 in 1976 . . . While it's certainly noteworthy that Washington was recognized by the AFCA as one of thirty-one institutions to post a football graduation rate of 70-percent or better for its freshman class of 1997-98, it is even more noteworthy is that no other PAC-10 school claimed that distinction . . . Both Craig Krenzel and Cody Pickett are listed as pre-season Davey O'Brien nominees for the nation's top signal-caller . . . On his weekly KJR radio show, Coach Gilbertson anointed a new nickname for his kiddie-corps kicking specialists - "Thrillseekers". This, he alluded, was after he yelled at them to "start kicking the damn ball farther" . . . Since 1948, the "Husky Debut" coaching record stands at 2-4-1, with only Darrell Royal (1956) and Jim Lambright (1993) winning their first time out . . .

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