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

Updated: August 30, 2003, 2:42 AM ET

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State tight end Ben Hartsock was as stunned as anyone by the Buckeyes winning the national championship last season.

"When you look at the personnel, I think everybody would obviously point to this year being the big year," he said.

With the entire starting offense and the majority of the defensive unit back from last season's 14-0 title team, the No. 2-ranked Buckeyes are primed to open their season Saturday night against No. 17 Washington.

Having surprised many, including themselves, by winning last season's title -- the school's first in 34 years -- the Buckeyes don't want to stop at one.

"Anytime, anywhere in college football, especially with a place like Ohio State and a coach like coach (Jim) Tressel, amazing things can happen at the drop of a hat," Hartsock said. "As long as we wholeheartedly believe in that, we can do it year after year after year."

One of the major plotlines to Saturday night's showdown is built around two people who won't be a part of the game.

Rick Neuheisel, who recruited most of the Huskies' players, was fired as coach during the summer after a gambling scandal. He was replaced by offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson.

Missing for the Buckeyes is tailback Maurice Clarett.

Clarett, who set Ohio State freshman records a year ago with 1,237 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, is suspended for exaggerating theft claims on a police report.

He was held out of the team's first 23 preseason workouts, then was suspended but allowed back to practice this week. He spent the time on the scout team portraying Washington tailback Rich Alexis.

Juniors Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross will attempt to fill the gap left by Clarett's open-ended suspension. They did the same last year when Clarett battled knee and shoulder injuries.

The Buckeyes were 3-0 without Clarett a year ago. Hall scored the winning touchdown in Ohio State's 23-16 overtime win over Illinois and rushed for the decisive score the next week in a come-from-behind 14-9 win over rival Michigan in the regular-season finale.

Running backs coach Tim Spencer confirmed Thursday night that Hall would be the starter.

Odds are that Ohio State fans will be comparing one Maurice with the other.

"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."

Maybe so, but quarterback Craig Krenzel and wideout Michael Jenkins give the Buckeyes one of the best pass-catch combinations in the country.

Krenzel has developed from a player who's sole function was to avoid mistakes into one who led the Buckeyes in rushing and scored two touchdowns in the 31-24 double-overtime victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes return all 11 starters on offense -- they're missing both safeties and their two top linebackers on defense -- but Krenzel said Ohio State cannot rest on what it did a year ago.

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

Ohio State won seven games by a touchdown or less in 2002.

If Gilbertson believes the Buckeyes are reliant on the running game, then the Huskies' hopes rest on Cody Pickett's arm.

Pickett threw for more than 300 yards in seven games and topped 400 in three more last season. He became the first Pac-10 quarterback to top 4,000 passing yards in a season. That's not too shabby considering the conference has produced John Elway, Jim Plunkett, Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Jake Plummer, Troy Aikman and Dan Fouts, among others.

Wideout Reggie Williams had 94 catches a year ago for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs. He will spend most of the game trying to get open deep.

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

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