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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Ranked Huskies, Wolverines risk top-notch foes in opener

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr said he likes opening the season against top-quality opposition, such as Washington at 12:10 p.m. today in Michigan Stadium.

As if he had a choice.

If he did, he might have wanted to do as his predecessor, Gary Moeller, did in 1994. That's when Moeller scheduled a last-minute opener against Boston College before having to play third-ranked Notre Dame in Michigan's original season debut.

“Personally, I like to start out with a game like this,” Carr said. “because I do think throughout the spring and throughout the fall training camp you do have something to get your attention. There's always the trepidation about young guys playing, and guys starting for the first time.

“The other side of that is, you're playing in a football game that everybody in the nation who loves college football is going to be watching. I like it. I think it's the right year for us to do that.”

The Huskies were ranked No. 9 in the AP preseason poll, but must be miffed at how they dropped to No. 11 without playing. UM dropped from No. 12 to No. 13 under the same circumstances.

It seems too early to be talking about a “Defining game” but that's the dialogue surrounding these two teams. The winner will climb into the Top 10, all of its goals intact. The loser will have to go to Plan B and extol the virtues of a possible conference championship with its national prominence getting thrown for a loss.

Since Carr replaced Moeller in 1995, the Wolverines have opened against eighth-ranked Colorado in 1997, 16th-ranked Notre Dame in 1999, No. 17 Virginia in the Pigskin Classic in 1995 and the Fighting Irish when they were ranked No. 22 in 1998.

In what might not be a good omen for Washington coach Rick Neuheisel, he was Colorado's coach in 1997 when the Buffaloes lost to Michigan 27-3. Michigan also won at Colorado in 1996 after opening the season with a 20-8 triumph over Illinois. It was Neuheisel's second season in Boulder.

Washington defeated the Wolverines 23-18 in Husky Stadium last year in the second game of the season for Michigan, UM opening with a 31-13 triumph over Miami of Ohio. The Huskies, totally outplayed through three quarters, scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one on a blocked field goal and the other on an interception after the ball went through the hands of Michigan tailback Chris Perry.

Neuheisel - as is the case with Carr - knows coaches don't often have a say in the schedule, or maybe this game would have been at least No. 2 on both team's schedules.

“The advantage of playing a Michigan in this game is the excitement that it will elicit from not only your players but everyone surrounding your program in anticipation of the season,” Neuheisel said.

“You're pretty much guaranteed your kids are going to work hard in the summer. They understand the stakes coming out of the box. There are huge upsides in terms of preparation.

“The downside is you're not sure exactly of everything in your program. It's much easier to make evaluations and determinations as to which way you proceed after seeing yourself play, and finding out who can and who may not be able to hold up at particular positions. To play against a team the caliber of Michigan can be an exposing situation.”

It's an interesting matchup in that neither team had a prominent running game last year. Michigan was held up mostly by its defense. The Huskies rode the benefits of a passing game that featured quarterback Cody Pickett, who passed for 2,403 yards, third most in school history in a single season.

UW has two outstanding pass receivers in Reggie Williams, who caught 55 passes for 973 yards and three touchdowns last season as a freshman, and Paul Arnold, who caught 43 passes for 649 yards and four TDs.

The Wolverines led the Big Ten in most major defensive categories last season, with the exception of pass defense, where they ranked seventh. Washington's defense gave up 175 points in the final four games last season.

Michigan would like to make it a defensive battle. The Huskies would prefer an offensive duel. A season-opener often favors the stronger defense, especially on its home turf.



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