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Stewart Mandel Inside College Football

Something completely different

Ohio State bucks trend of close calls, throttles Washington early

Posted: Sunday August 31, 2003 3:23PM; Updated: Friday September 12, 2003 10:47AM
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  Lydell Ross
Lydell Ross didn't make anybody forget about Maurice Clarett, rushing for 43 yards on 12 carries.
AP

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Defending national champion Ohio State opened its 2003 season on Saturday with none of the suspense so synonymous with last season, pummeling the 17th-ranked team in the country 28-9.

And yet, even a perfectly sane observer couldn't help but be ... well, disappointed.

It could have been so much worse.

"I thought we could put up more points," All-America cornerback Chris Gamble lamented afterward.

Besides perhaps Washington quarterback Cody Pickett, who wouldn't agree?

Facing a Washington team that, in head coach Keith Gilbertson's debut, exhibited all the same deficiencies -- no running game, a weak pass rush -- that plagued them under Rick Neuheisel, the Buckeyes controlled the game from nearly the outset. They outgained the Huskies 237-77 in the first half and jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead.

And yet you couldn't help but wonder what might have been had, say, Maurice Clarett been back there to improve on the performances of Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross; they combined for a 3.7-yards-per carry average.

Or if Craig Krenzel, who came out throwing on four of the game's first five plays, had avoided several overthrows to wide-open receivers that "limited" him to a 15-of-27, 203-yard day.

Or if two-way stud Gamble, charged with defending All-America Washington receiver Reggie Williams, hadn't been used sparingly on offense to keep him fresh for defense.

Or had the first-team defense remained in long enough to prevent the Huskies' lone, garbage-time touchdown.

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"I was hoping we would rush it for about 200, throw for about 250," said an otherwise satisfied Jim Tressel, whose team gained 142 and 203, respectively. "I think we've got to get a lot better running the football than we were today."

The Buckeyes clearly have some kinks to work out in their sans-Maurice offense, which, as promised, was far more balanced than a year ago.

And yet they were able to turn their nationally televised season opener into what was essentially a glorified spring game.

Why?

Their defense, much like it did a year ago, thoroughly brutalized its opponent.

Washington's Pickett, coming off the Pac-10's first 4,000-yard passing season, became the latest victim to enter The House Where Heisman Hopes Die (where he may have found Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Gesser hanging out in the living room). Led by first-year starting end Simon Fraser, the defensive line gave Pickett so little time to throw he was relegated to tossing quick screen passes most of the first half.

He would finish 26-of-49 for 255 yards, and Williams put up a respectable 10 catches for 107 yards, but don't be fooled. Much of it came with the outcome well in hand and with the Buckeyes' key defenders done for the night.

"They are as advertised," Gilbertson said of the Buckeyes' defense. "When they can get to you with just three or four guys rushing, and they don't have to blitz or pressure, they have such tremendous athletes they can lock you up on the outside."

Pickett wouldn't fully tip his cap to the OSU line afterward, but Fraser, who led the defense with seven tackles, three for loss, said he could sense they were rattling him.

"You got a sense that he's getting up slower off the ground each time we hit him," said Fraser. "That's when we attacked."

The Buckeyes lost several prominent players from last year's Big Ten-leading defense -- linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant, safeties Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey -- yet didn't seem to miss a beat. Several players who didn't necessarily start last year -- Fraser, linebacker A.J. Hawk, strong safety Will Allen -- still played significantly during the title run, and several highly touted youngsters, like E.J. Underwood, Mike D'Andrea and Bobby Carpenter, stepped in admirably on Saturday.

If there are any questions about this year's version of the Buckeyes, particularly in light of the Clarett situation, they are on the admittedly improved offense.

Krenzel, who threw more times in the first half (18) than in seven entire games last season, looked cool and comfortable running a more complicated offense. As he did against Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, Krenzel showed surprising agility on his feet, scrambling for touchdown runs of 23 and 11 yards.

That, combined with a penchant for spreading it around -- nine different players, Gamble not among them, caught at least one pass -- more than compensated for a less-than-powerful running game.

But the $75,000 question -- or, in honor of that now-infamous police report, perhaps we should say $8,000? -- is whether that one notable deficiency will eventually come back to haunt them.

Clarett, who stood on the sideline Saturday, cheering and joking with teammates, is out for the foreseeable future. There are several upcoming games -- San Diego State next week, Bowling Green and Northwestern later in September -- the Buckeyes could win with just about anyone in the backfield.

But what about when high-flying N.C. State visits in two weeks? A little ball control could go a long way toward keeping Philip Rivers off the field. Or at Wisconsin, which will surely grind it out behind star Anthony Davis, on Oct. 11?

"This year, we have so many weapons offensively that we're only going to be as good as our ability to spread the ball around," said Krenzel. "In order to run the ball, we need to throw better. We need to hit a couple more of those deep balls."

Overall, though, it would be hard for anyone who watched this one to suggest OSU isn't suitably equipped for a repeat run.

"We haven't changed that much," said Ross. "We're the same team, but we're getting better."

Is that possible?

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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