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Sunday, September 5, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley / Times staff columnist

Little hope for Huskies football in a season of change

Today

Fresno State @ Washington, 2:30 p.m., FSN

Welcome to the great unknown.

Who are these Huskies?

Who is this season's quarterback, next in the succession that has included Cody Pickett, Brock and Damon Huard and Mark Brunell? And where is the offensive line that used to open yawning holes for slippery runners like Napoleon Kaufman?

Where are the immovable defensive linemen in the mold of Steve Emtman? What in the names of Chuck Nelson and Jeff Jaeger is going on at kicker? Where is the next great receiver now that Reggie Williams is in the NFL?

Where are the All-Americans? And, for that matter, where are the All-Pac-10 players?

Where are the national rankings? The flirtations with the Top 10? What happened to the annual parade into postseason?

Welcome to the season of lesser expectations.

A team that once challenged for Rose Bowl titles will be fortunate to make it into the Silicon Valley Bowl this season. Do the Huskies know the way to San Jose?

This is another transition season at Montlake, from the un-Husky-like finesse football coached by Rick Neuheisel, back to the familiar bad-to-the-bone, chops-busting Huskies of Don James and Jim Lambright.

Washington is picked to go nowhere. Read any magazine that doesn't have a supermodel or a movie star on its cover and try to find an optimistic prediction on this Huskies season.

The best scenarios have them picked fifth in the Pac-10. The consensus is seventh.

This is a program looking to reclaim its place among the nation's elite, a program that has dropped so far, so fast that last year it lost at home to Nevada.

And sitting in judgment, like a Greek chorus, will be 70,000 fans, watching second-year coach Keith Gilbertson and expecting more than they got last season.

That chorus is strong and unforgivable. It forced out Lambright even though he went 44-25-1 in six seasons.

Gilbertson's future is hardly secure. Sources say one of the reasons Utah athletic director Chris Hill turned down the Washington job was the growing debate over Gilbertson's future.

He didn't want to come to the school and immediately be forced into refereeing the fight between the pro-Gilbertson and anti-Gilberston camps.

Welcome to the uncertainty of Washington football 2004, a season in which success could depend on today's opener against a very good Fresno State team.

The Huskies' schedule is bottom-heavy. If they beat Fresno State, they could open 5-0. They have a week off before their conference opener at home against UCLA.

They play a vulnerable Notre Dame team, whose coach, Tyrone Willingham, is sitting on a seat that is every bit as scorching as Gilbertson's.

In this best-cast scenario — and it's a longshot — the Huskies establish the run and take the pressure off Casey Paus, their unproven starting quarterback.

Kenny James turns second-and-eights into first downs. Shelton Sampson no longer fumbles the ball and breaks open games with big runs.

Zach Tuiasosopo, maybe the best player on the team, escorts James and Sampson with his lead blocks and gets the hard yards that keep drives alive.

In this scenario, receiver Charles Frederick, who two years ago almost left the program, stays healthy, becomes a leader and makes the tough catches that help swell Paus' confidence.

The pressure is on Gilbertson. The chorus is uncomfortable.

Gilbertson has to find ways to get backup quarterback Isaiah Stanback on the field to pressure defenses with his legs as much as his arm. And enormously talented left tackle senior Khalif Barnes must finally realize his potential.

Washington hasn't had a losing season in 27 years. It came from behind to keep that record alive in last year's Apple Cup. But that was with a proven quarterback, Pickett, and an All-American receiver, Williams.

For this year's team to go even 7-5, everything has to go well. It needs to get points from its defense. It needs to change the momentum of games with its special teams.

All of its defensive veterans — cornerbacks Sam Cunningham and Derrick Johnson, interior defensive linemen Donny Mateaki and Manase Hopoi, linebackers Joe Lobendahn and Even Benjamin and safety Jimmy Newell — have to be that much better.

This season, the Dawgs are dogs, underdogs like they haven't been since the early James years.

Welcome to the great unknown, a season so fragile that this afternoon against Fresno State could be the difference between success and failure.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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