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Huskies stumble in opener

Washington defender Evan Benjamin greets Fresno State quarterback Paul Pinegar during a first-half sack on Sunday in Seattle. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington defender Evan Benjamin greets Fresno State quarterback Paul Pinegar during a first-half sack on Sunday in Seattle. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

SEATTLE – The fans filing into Husky Stadium Sunday were hoping the season-opener with Fresno State would answer some questions about University of Washington football, version 2004.

Instead, many left early, as the Huskies’ 35-16 meltdown on a warm Seattle day just brought more questions.

Who is UW’s No. 1 quarterback?

How many turnovers will the Huskies have this year?

Can a couple of plays be that important?

The answers: Casey Paus (maybe), at Sunday’s rate 55 and yes, against a team like Fresno, they are.

The plays in question came, ironically enough, immediately after the Husky faithful had stood to cheer members of the 1984 team that finished 11-1 and second in the nation.

The ceremony, coming between the third and fourth quarters and the Huskies trailing just 14-10, served to fire up the 65,345 in attendance. But it may also have served as a reminder of how far this year’s team still has to go.

That’s because UW was about to self-destruct.

Backup quarterback Isaiah Stanback was taking his first series of the second half – he ran three in the first – with the Huskies facing a second and 6 from their 20. In the shotgun, Stanback stuck the ball into reserve running back James Sims’ belly, tried to pull it out, lost the handle and was knocked down.

The free ball was scooped up by FSU’s Brian Morris who knew where to take it – 18 yards to the end zone.

“I was going to pull it out and go for the pitch, but it caught his hip and came out,” the sophomore from Garfield High in Seattle said. “We had the momentum and my turnover stopped us cold. If you ask me, that was the turning point.”

It may have been just that, but it wasn’t the only physical or mental mistake Husky quarterbacks made this day.

Paus, who started and took a majority of the snaps, followed up Stanback’s miscue with one of his own, throwing high over the middle while trying to find Charles Frederick, and the tipped ball was picked by strong safety James Sanders. Two plays later FSU’s Dwayne Wright broke a counter for 28 of his game-high 116 yards (on 24 carries), found the end zone and put the Bulldogs up 28-10.

In a little more than a minute, the Huskies went from confident to questioning. And most of the questions still revolve around the quarterback spot.

“It’s tough enough to play good teams when you’re playing good,” Husky coach Keith Gilbertson said, “and not turning it over at the pace we did today. To basically give a really good and athletic team 28 points, it’s going to be a long day.

“With our newness at quarterback, I’m not surprised we struggled a little bit. But I’m just as upset as can be about the ball being on the ground and being thrown to them the way it was.”

Paus threw three interceptions, the final one returned 75 yards down the sideline with 3:38 left by Richard Marshall for Fresno State’s final score.

Stanback added another scoring pick, his coming midway through the second quarter with UW up 7-0 after a 50-yard run from fullback Zach Tuiasosopo had set up Stanback’s 8-yard scoring run.

That was a mental mistake more than a physical one as Stanback, who was supposed to throw a screen left, tried to hit tight end Jon Lyon on the right and Sanders stepped in and scored from 19 yards out.

Fresno’s offense scored its one touchdown on its lone long drive – UW outgained the Bulldogs by 98 total yards (360 to 262) – right after halftime, going 80 yards in 10 plays, culminated by Paul Pinegar’s 12-yard pass to wideout Joe Fernandez.

Pinegar, one of 19 starters returning from a Fresno team that was 9-5 (6-2 in the Western Athletic Conference) and won six of its last seven, was 13 of 21 for 125 yards. While the Fresno offense was struggling early, the Bulldog defense – and the UW mistakes – kept FSU in it. Maybe that’s why Fresno is 4-2 in its last six games against the Pac-10, though Sunday was its first on the road.

“Our job is to stop their offense and, if our offense can’t score, to score,” said UW senior inside linebacker Joe Lobendahn, who led both teams with 16 tackles after missing last season with a knee injury. “Their defense did a better job of scoring than we did.”

The Bulldog defense didn’t yield early and the Huskies’ Evan Knudson did his part, missing two first-quarter field goals of less than 38 yards. The misses may have also cost the junior his job, as redshirt freshman Michael Braunstein stepped in a converted an extra point and a 25-yard third-quarter field goal.

So one question – who is the kicker? – was probably answered. But who will be under center when UCLA comes to town Sept. 18?

“I didn’t think young guys like that would go out there and pitch a perfect game, against a team that’s as athletic as that,” Gilbertson said, “but with the ball on the ground the way it was, we have to take a long hard look again and start over again.”

And answer some questions.