Even without Clarett, Washington-Ohio State game keeps its luster

Updated: August 29, 2003, 7:14 PM ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter the opponent, the season can't start soon enough for defending national champion Ohio State.

The No. 2 Buckeyes open against the Washington Huskies without star tailback Maurice Clarett, suspended by the school for "multiple games" for filing an exaggerated police report about stolen property.

"Now we get to go find out on Saturday night just how far along we are," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.

No. 17 Washington has a new coach in Keith Gilbertson, who took over after Rick Neuheisel was fired last month for gambling on NCAA basketball tournaments and then lying to investigators about it.

"It was a tough situation on all of us," Gilbertson said. "It wasn't easy. I think our people have rallied around each other and I'm pleased with what I see."

Neither coach is asking for sympathy. Both teams are loaded with stars, beginning with Huskies quarterback Cody Pickett and Buckeyes' two-way star Chris Gamble.

While Clarett is out, the Buckeyes still return all their starters on offense, including quarterback Craig Krenzel and wide receiver Michael Jenkins.

Maurice Hall will open at tailback, with Lydell Ross set to share the load.

"I think we have good running backs," Tressel said. "I think Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall have shown they can do outstanding things."

Clarett ran for 1,237 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. But Ross had 619 yards and six TDs, and Hall added 370 yards and four TDs, including the winning scores against Illinois and Michigan.

Clarett, who missed the team's first 23 preseason workouts, practiced this week and spent his time on the scout team portraying Washington tailback Rich Alexis.

Gilbertson, the Huskies' offensive coordinator before his promotion, believes the Buckeyes will still try to run, run and run some more in front of a home crowd of 105,000.

"They'll pound it off tackle and then they pound it some more," Gilbertson said. "And then just about the time you think they're ready to throw one, they're going to pound one in there again on you."

Krenzel won't be bashful about throwing, especially to Jenkins, who topped 1,000 yards receiving and caught six TD passes.

The Huskies' hopes ride on the arm of Pickett, who became the first Pac-10 quarterback to top 4,000 yards passing last season. Also back is All-American receiver Reggie Williams, who caught 94 passes for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs.

"Washington has great team speed," Tressel said. "And they have outstanding athletes."

Gamble, a flanker-cornerback, heads a defense that returns seven starters. New starters at the safety spots will surely be tested early by Pickett.

Krenzel's ability to avoid mistakes could be the key for a team that won seven of its games last season by a touchdown or less. In Ohio State's 31-24 double overtime win against Miami in the title game at the Fiesta Bowl, he led the team in rushing and scored TDs.

To beat Washington, Krenzel said, "We know we're going to have to play better than any game a year ago."

And they'll have to do it without Clarett.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index