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Ohio State, Washington glad to take field

The opening of any college football season brings change, but is there any game this weekend where the two teams have had more tumultuous offseasons than Ohio State and Washington?

The second-ranked Buckeyes will play host to the No. 17 Huskies tomorrow night at Ohio Stadium with preseason Heisman favorite Maurice Clarett sitting out the first of a multi-game suspension for exaggerating the cost of the items that were stolen from a car the tailback had borrowed from a Columbus car dealer.

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At least Clarett will be there watching. Rick Neuheisel won't, having been fired as the Huskies' coach in June for taking part in an NCAA basketball tournament pool back in 2002. So here's a question to ponder: Which team has the advantage?

Believe it or not, it's the Buckeyes. They will be playing at home, where, coming off last season's national championship, their fans will certainly provide a rowdy environment.

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More important, Ohio State learned last season how to play without Clarett. The Buckeyes won a number of games when Clarett was either sidelined with an injury or was a non-factor while playing hurt. Many forget that backups Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross combined for 989 yards in Clarett's absence.

Ohio State is used to being distracted by Clarett's off-field problems as well. It also happened when Clarett wanted to go home during the week of the Fiesta Bowl for the funeral of a childhood friend. He blasted school officials because he hadn't put in the proper paperwork.

"I don't think it's a distraction. You have to work through things regardless of what it is," Hall said by telephone after practice Tuesday. "You might have some things that might try to distract us, but you've just got to stay focused."

Ross gained 619 yards on 3.7 yards a carry, and Hall picked up 370 and averaged 4.7 yards each time he ran the ball last season. Though they don't expect the comparisons to Clarett (1,237 yards) to suddenly go away, Hall and Ross are eager to silence the skeptics.

"I definitely think you have to go out trying to prove, people might not know exactly what we can do or how good we are," said Hall, a junior from Columbus. "I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more experienced."

It will likely be a bigger adjustment for the Huskies. While Keith Gilbertson has been a head coach before and worked as Neuheisel's offensive coordinator and tight ends coach the past three seasons, opening on the road against the defending national champions is a monumental assignment.

"Am I going to be excited about the game? Heck yeah. Am I going to be nervous? Sure, I'm going to be nervous," said Gilbertson, 55. "It's an unbelievable facility they have. They have great fans. They have great passion, a great following. It's one of the great places in college football."

Having your own Heisman Trophy candidate - maybe two in quarterback Cody Pickett and wide-out Reggie Williams - should help Gilbertson.

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Pickett is typical of players being hyped for the Heisman from the West Coast. Except for tomorrow night's game, the Huskies are rarely seen outside the Pacific time zone. Pickett threw for 4,458 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, with 94 of those passes, 1,454 of those yards and 11 of those touchdowns going to Williams.

The son of a former rodeo champion and an expert roper himself back in high school, Pickett will also have a difficult task against the Buckeyes' defense.

"I'll do whatever we need to do to win," Pickett said. "If we need to come out in the wishbone, I'll do it."

Carson's replacement

In Los Angeles, replacing someone named Carson isn't easy. (Ask Jay Leno.)

But quarterback Matt Leinart has the kind of pedigree - he was a Parade All-American at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif. - and the kind of physique - a 6-foot-5 left-hander with an NFL-type arm - that could help Southern California fans get over the departure of 2002 Heisman winner Carson Palmer.

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Leinart, a third-year sophomore, will make his first start tomorrow at one of college football's underrated venues - Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game is probably the biggest in terms of Bowl Championship Series implications this weekend, since the Tigers are ranked sixth and the Trojans are eighth.

"I'm not really concerned," Leinart said earlier this week. "I know it's going to be a hostile environment, and it's going to be hot and humid. That just makes it more fun. It's probably going to be like nothing I've ever experienced. It's going to be the best game in the country that day. Everyone is going to be watching."

The Associated Press and other news organizations contributed to this article.

Keep an eye on

South Florida at Alabama: With top-ranked Oklahoma coming to Tuscaloosa next week, the Crimson Tide could be overlooking the Bulls in the much-anticipated debut of coach Mike Shula.

Florida State at North Carolina: This is where the Seminoles stumbled a couple of years ago and began to show vulnerability in the ACC. Don't expect it to happen again.

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Georgia at Clemson: A battle of two former Bobby Bowden assistants, son Tommy with the Tigers and Mark Richt with the Bulldogs. A little pressure is beginning to build on the younger Bowden in Death Valley.


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