TO MANY AN OHIOAN, prior to the rise to national prominence of the Buckeyes football team, James Thurber, himself a land-grant man, was the pride of Columbus and the school it spawned. One wonders whether the humorist didnt from the great beyond somehow tip off the 2003 Buckeyes as to what to expect when Ohio State Universitys defending national-championship team blunted the Husky attack on Saturday, Aug. 30, when the University of Washingtons latest gridiron edition succumbed, 28-9, in front of 105 million (thousand, actually, but it looked like millions to those of us on hand).
Thurber knew about dogs (and maybe even Dawgs). He had once written about a canine admired for appearing successfully in a long-running stage play. How had the dog stayed still and quiet so many times? By performing, Thurber explained, the way the part had been written.
This was precisely what the UW Huskies did Saturday. They had been expected to display a passing-only, one-dimensional offense this season, and that is what they by-dog did, amassing 7 rushing yards through the first three quarters while Ohio State accumulated 140 (without gifted sophomore running back Maurice Clarett). The UWs is a football program from which partisans had come to expect hundreds of run yards per game, having seen such past backs as Napoleon Kaufman and Corey Dillon rack up a hundred or so during mere quarters.
WHAT GIVES THIS YEAR? In the assessment of one postgame analyst, a Thurber-esque Buckeye supporter: This year the Huskies seem to use the ground game to set up the punting game. Another way of looking at it: A one-dimensional offense paradoxically is the same as a no-dimensional offense. This is because no quarterback, not even the vaunted Husky Cody Pickett, can keep big-time competition guessing when defenders know every play will be a pass.
Make that every successful play. The Huskies tried the run, but senior back Rich Alexis either missed holes or found none. A few thousand of us who were snuggled into a southwest corner of the super-sized Ohio Stadium sensed early that some inexperienced punter would prove to be the Huskies game MVP, and a dozen or so heroic thumps soon proved us correct.
This, here again, is big-time college football, and everybody (including, certainly, accidental coach Keith Gilbertson) knew it. Northwest boosters had spent several days in the region. They couldnt help but have noticed, heading south out of Ohios Amish country and its surplus of suspiciously Taiwanese-looking hand-made wares, that most homes in the Columbus hinterlands sport copious Buckeye regalia. Jim Tressel, a native son who labored at nearby Youngstown State for 15 seasons, has been given saint status after just two full seasons as Buckeyes boss. The perfect players coach, he even yields to his minions during obligatory postgame interviewing, as he did Saturday after referring to Pickett as having been a potential Heisman Trophy candidate.
The past-tense reference may have been prophetic. Picketts personal fortunes are going nowhere his senior year as long as Washingtons O has no ground game. By this time next year, Pickett will have signed a pro contract for enough money to own his native Caldwell, Idaho, but hell never have the Heisman this way, even if it were worth winning. (The plaudit has been a near guarantee of NFL failure.)
Gilby (the nickname jocks imaginatively chose for the UW coach) knows about his teams problems. During a gracious concession speech as Saturday waned, the monthlong mentor conceded that our first-time starters played like first-time starters. The Huskies tried unripened freshmen and sophomores at several key positions, and it showed. The Buckeyes brilliant (literally; hes said to have a 4.0 grade point average) Craig Krenzel passed and ran for 230 of OSUs 345 yards, against a dust-bunny defense that stiffened somewhat as the night wore on.
The Huskies can get better pretty quickly this weekend at home against Indiana, but even the inferior Hoosiers will have the UW offense figured out. One hopes the brains behind the scheduling process have learned the hard way about booking openers on the road against national powers. Starting away against a national champ (the Buckeyes had won their previous 24 home openers) is kind of like going to the racetrack and laying the whole wad on Gumlegs to win the first race at 16-1 odds.
IF NOTHING ELSE, the experience of not quite being humiliated in front of a national TV audience ought to leave in the distance the dingy remains of the Neuheisel ordeal. The fact is, the Husky program didnt require a perfect season to be considered a success, and its just as well, because an Oct. 25 date with daunting USC makes anything better than a 10-2 year seem improbable. Otherwise, to borrow from Thurber, its worth noting that bothered dogs sometimes start feeling better when, after losing something (a running game, for example), they remember where they left it.