December 2, 2004
If all Sam Keller had to measure himself by was that shaky relief effort as a freshman at UCLA last season — when he replaced an injured Andrew Walter and struggled below the bright lights of the Rose Bowl — the ASU quarterback might be more worried about his first collegiate start.
But after a second season of mop-up duty behind record-setter Andrew Walter, Keller found himself in the heat of battle again when Walter separated his right shoulder late in Friday’s 34-27 loss at Arizona.
Suddenly, Keller had a second kick at the can — one he didn’t waste.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore, who spurned Michigan at the last minute for ASU two years ago, looked sharp in his sevenminute stint. He completed all five passes on a touchdown drive, then moved the Sun Devils into position to tie in the final two minutes. If not for a fourth-down drop by receiver Matt Miller, the Devils may have forced overtime.
Now with news that Walter is done for the season, the keys of ASU’s high-powered passing game have been flipped to Keller — who can’t wait to ease behind the wheel. His first test drive will come in a bowl game — either the Holiday on Dec. 30 at San Diego or the Sun Dec. 31 at El Paso, Texas — but Keller is looking for the kind of effort and momentum that could point to a rosy future.
"I gladly filled my role for the team (as a backup) but any red-blooded quarterback wants to play and wants all the pressure and expectations that come with that,’’ Keller said. "I can’t wait for the first practice (on Friday), for the game plan to be set, for the chance to take the field . . . leading a team in a bowl game. I’ve had dreams about that since I was a little kid.
"We have a chance to end this season on a positive note, send this incredible senior class out with a win and a (bowl) ring and get a start toward even better things next year.’’
And since Walter and center Drew Hodgdon are the only seniors on offense, the extra weeks of practice and game action with Keller is the silver lining to losing Walter — and losing to Arizona. It gives Sun Devil fans a polished preview of what is to come.
"We have to forget about that game because there’s nothing we can do about it,’’ Keller said. "We’re all going to miss Andrew, but to have the chance to get a solid game under my belt and prepare as the No. 1 guy, it’s something I want to take full advantage of.’’
This kind of thing has happened to ASU before. In 1997 the Devils lost starter Ryan Kealy to a knee injury against Arizona and turned to backup Steve Campbell in the Sun Bowl against Iowa. With a watered-down playbook, Campbell threw only nine passes, but a 27-carry, 169-yard effort from running back Michael Martin was enough to produce a 17-7 win.
Don’t expect a no-frills effort this time. ASU coach Dirk Koetter has been pleased with Keller’s attitude and progression in practice and wasn’t surprised at his efforts in Tucson.
"We’ve had confidence in Sam all along. We know what Sam can do," Koetter said. "That was a lot of pressure for Sam to go into and I thought he did a nice job in his role."
That’s a long way from the feelings about Keller at Camp Tontozona — where he not only failed to push Walter but was in danger of slipping to No. 3 on the depth chart.
"I came to camp with the idea of really proving myself, but I think now I put too much pressure on trying to be perfect and just made things worse,’’ he said. "Camp T. was a letdown, but since then I think I’ve come a long way in studying, understanding the game plans and what we want to do and pretending each week that I would be playing because you’re always one play away.’’
Even though he’s had to wait his turn behind Walter, Keller has never regretted his decision to become a Sun Devil. After giving his oral commitment to Michigan — where his father, Mike, was an All-American defensive lineman — Keller backed out and headed West at the last minute.
"Something inside me said I made the decision (to go to Michigan) for the wrong reasons,’’ he said. "I felt if I went to my dad, as hard as it was — he bleeds maize and blue — it would benefit me in the long run.
"And it turned out to be the best decision I could have made. My dad has been very supportive and I couldn’t have asked for it all to go down better than it did.’’