Arizona State quarterback off to fast start
Thursday, 09/08, 12:40 p.m.
By Jim Kleinpeter
BATON ROUGE – As debuts go, it’s hard to beat what Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller did in his first start.
He merely stepped in for record-setting teammate Andrew Walter and won the Sun Bowl MVP award in leading Arizona State to a 27-23 victory. He picked up where he left off with 14 completions in 24 attempts for 208 yards and four touchdowns last week against Temple.
But Keller’s thus far seamless transition will get a real test – as will the No. 15-ranked Devils’ attempted journey to the next level – when he and his mates take on LSU on Saturday in Tempe.
Walter, who owns every major passing record at Arizona State and holds the Pac-10 touchdown record, went down in the regular-season finale against Arizona. Keller finished up that game going eight for 13 for 94 yards and a touchdown, and then dissected Purdue, hitting 25 of 45 throws for 370 yards and three scores. He showed uncommon savvy in driving the Devils 80 yards for the winning touchdown late in the game.
He enters the 2005 season with a veteran offensive line and an improved running game, but also an important intangible.
“Those last two games did volumes for my confidence as a quarterback and strengthened the chemistry of our team,” Keller said. “Everyone thought Andrew going down was going to be a really big deal and it wasn’t because our offense was so well prepared because of the way our coaches put us in position to win. We didn’t skip a beat. Those games, the game we just played was good we got the kinks out. Now we’re going to be tested on a national level against a national powerhouse.”
“Sam was always working hard behind Andrew and it’s showing now,” said Arizona State preseason All-American wide receiver Derek Hagan. “He’s a great quarterback and it’s showing now.”
Keller knows he can further his development with a strong effort this week against a seasoned LSU defense, which has seven starters back from last season. Keller has the advantage of working at home instead of a raucous, deafening Tiger Stadium. The game was moved from Baton Rouge to Tempe so as not to interfere with the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
“They’re big and fast and probably the most athletic I’m going to see, or right up there, in college,” he said. “They bring the blitzes. They’ll try to smash us in the mouth early. That’s what we’re prepared for.”
LSU is preparing for a man-mountain of a quarterback. Keller stands 6 feet 4 and 233 pounds, the son of former Michigan Wolverine linebacker Mike Keller. He’s not a great threat to run, but is nimble enough to avoid the rush in the pocket, where he can deliver any manner of pass – the lob, the down-and-out, the deep out and the bomb. He’s has also shown good poise.
“He makes good decisions, he moves the ball around and he knows what he’s supposed to do with the ball,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He’s a good quarterback.”
Said LSU safety Jessie Daniels: “On tape it looks like he can throw every kind of pass there is.”
Keller rated himself a six out of 10 on his performance against Temple, a game Arizona State won 63-14. Along with his four touchdown passes he threw two interceptions. Keller was also protected by a strong running game.
"Sam was not as sharp as he usually practices,” Arizona State coach Dick Koetter said. “Some of the things that didn't look very good to you or to me were not Sam's fault. We had receivers guess on a couple of plays and they guessed wrong, which is disappointing to me. There is no need to guess against a team like Temple. I thought Sam made some great throws. The second touchdown pass to Hagan was a beautiful throw, his best pass of the night.”
Said Keller: “I had a couple of forced throws because I was getting greedy out there. That’s stuff that can easily be fixed. The running game was an excellent surprise.”
Keller’s play against LSU may be telling on the remainder of the Sun Devils’ season. In their first four seasons under Koetter, the Sun Devils alternated winning and losing records, but are coming off a 9-3 record last year. That earned them a No. 20 preseason ranking and another good season could earn Koetter a raise and a new contract.
“My opinion is biased but his team can do anything it wants,” Keller said.
“Everything is going in the right direction. This team is on the verge.”