Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Focus finally back on field for OSU, UW

Huskies, OSU deal with distractions

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

If the Ohio State Buckeyes think they're tiring of talking about Maurice Clarett's summer, they ought to walk a mile in the Huskies' paws.

Washington fired its coach, Rick Neuheisel, in June after he lied about having gambled in NCAA basketball tournament pools, in violation of NCAA rules. As damaging as a suspension to an All-America tailback like Clarett may be, it doesn't compare to the program-shaking scandal UW just endured.

"It's been a tough situation on all of us," new UW coach Keith Gilbertson said.

Saturday brings a respite from the questions, as the Huskies visit the second-ranked Buckeyes in the season opener for each. UW quarterback Cody Pickett said the magnitude of this test has helped his team put the controversy behind it. "For all the things that happened off the field, we've had no control over it," he said. "We knew we had a great task ahead of us, so we had to work hard this summer to get ready for this game."

Neuheisel was removed from his post June 12 by athletic director Barbara Hedges. On July 29, after Neuheisel's unsuccessful appeal of his firing, Gilbertson was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach. Neuheisel is expected to sue.

Gilbertson was the head coach at Idaho from 1986-88, and at California from 1992-95, with a combined record of 48-35. He was the offensive coordinator under Don James when Washington won the national title in 1991.

Though the Huskies are ranked No. 17 and have a pair of Heisman candidates in Pickett and wide receiver Reggie Williams, they know the scandal story will linger. As Gilbertson put it last week, "I'm sure when we go out of town . . . you probably will get the same types of questions over and over again that we were answering in June and July."

Pickett set a Pac-10 single-season passing record of 4,458 yards last year. Williams, a junior, has 2,429 receiving yards - the best two-year total in Pac-10 history.

Yet the Huskies totaled just 968 rushing yards last fall - the first time they failed to reach 1,000 since 1939 - which paved the way for a so-so 7-6 season. They're talking about balancing their attack, which will likely necessitate a big season from senior tailback Rich Alexis (688 yards in 2002), who is coming off his second shoulder surgery.

Referring to the relief of getting back to football Saturday, Williams told reporters, "After we win, it will be nice to exhale."

After you win? At Ohio State?

"I just go into every game expecting to win," Williams said. "If you don't, why play football?"

Huskies at a glance

AP rank: No. 17

Projected Pac-10 finish: Third

Coach: Keith Gilbertson (0-0 at UW, 48-35 career mark)

Returning starters: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)

2002 record: 7-6

Bowl bid: Sun Bowl, lost to Purdue 34-24

Fast facts: QB Cody Pickett set Pac-10 single-season record with 4,458 passing yards in 2002; WR Reggie Williams (94 catches, 1,454 yards, 11 TDs in '02) is also a Heisman candidate.

Game info

Kickoff: 8:10 p.m. Saturday

Where: Ohio State Stadium

TV: ABC (Chs. 9, 2)


E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com

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