Freshman Quarterback Sam Keller Is Well Versed In The Glamour Associated With Playing At Rose Bowl

By Brian Gomez
TheSunDevils.com

PASADENA, Calif.- Raised around Michigan's football program, Arizona State freshman quarterback Sam Keller was well versed in the glamour associated with playing at the Rose Bowl, but he didn't anticipate being asked to become part of it so early in his collegiate career.

Thrust into action Saturday night for the injured Andrew Walter, Keller tried to duplicate the success of those who had gone before him in a serene place that's intimidating even to seasoned starters, let alone inexperienced true freshmen.

Although the end result was not to Keller's liking, the lessons learned in a 20-13 loss to UCLA will surely do more good than bad in the long run.

'As a backup, you're always one play away from going in,' said Keller, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 79 yards in two-plus quarters. 'The game plan can't change just because Andrew goes down. I tried to stay as focused as I could and I tried to do what I needed to do.'

Sun Devil head coach Dirk Koetter said he was pleased with Keller's performance, given the fact that Keller often faced long-yardage situations on third down as a result of UCLA's zone blitz and cover-two defense. Keller was sacked three times, but didn't throw an interception.

'That's a very difficult situation to go in under those conditions against one of the best, if not the best, defenses in the league,' Koetter said. 'After they got him rattled a little bit, they did a good job of bluffing their blitzes - sometimes bringing them and sometimes not.'

Walter did everything he could to return, but his ankle was too ginger, so he directed his efforts toward helping Keller. He talked to Keller when ASU's defense was on the field, giving him pointers on reads and telling him to stay positive.

'Sam did more than what I could have done as a true freshman,' Walter said. 'This is an invaluable experience for him. Next time he gets a chance to go out there, he's going to have this Pac-10 experience, and he won't do maybe half the things he did today.'

The Sun Devils trailed 10-3 early in the second quarter when Walter went down with a sprained right ankle, forcing Keller into action for the first time since the Oct. 11 game against Oregon. Before Saturday, Keller had played in only three games, completing 6 of 12 passes for 85 yards.

It didn't take long for ASU to draw even with Keller taking snaps behind center, as freshman tailback Loren Wade broke off a 61-yard touchdown run through a gaping hole that was opened by senior fullback Mike Karney.

The Sun Devils went three and out on their ensuing possession, but regained possession with 3:09 remaining in the second quarter after senior safety Brett Hudson intercepted UCLA sophomore quarterback Matt Moore's pass and returned it 24 yards to his team's 41-yard line.

That's when Keller began having success by throwing several short passes, often to backs and receivers who broke their routes not more than five yards past the line of scrimmage.

Keller completed a 4-yard pass to senior wide receiver Skyler Fulton on an out pattern toward the sideline, then connected with sophomore tailback Hakim Hill for an 11-yard gain on a screen pass that moved the ball into UCLA territory.

ASU sophomore wide-out Derek Hagan's 5-yard reception on a comeback route set up Hill's 16-yard scamper around right tackle. The drive stalled inside the red zone, but freshman place-kicker Jesse Ainsworth drilled a 33-yard field goal to give the Sun Devils a 13-10 halftime lead.

'Andrew is a big part of what we do, but Sam came in and kept his composure and stayed calm,' Hagan said.

Keller started looking downfield more in the second half, especially after ASU failed to move the chains much on its first three drives.

Midway through the third quarter, Keller hooked up with Hagan for an 18-yard gain, but the drive stalled in UCLA territory when Keller was sacked on second down and threw an incompletion on third down. Ainsworth's 49-yard field-goal attempt didn't get enough trajectory and ricocheted off the back of his linemen.

Junior defensive end Jimmy Verdon's first career interception gave the Sun Devils the ball at the UCLA 25-yard line with 2:44 left in the third quarter, but the drive ended before Keller could even attempt a pass. Wade fumbled on the first play from scrimmage as he tried to fight for extra yardage, and the Bruins recovered.

Late in the fourth quarter, Keller took his best shot over the middle of the field when facing a third-and-11 from the ASU 19, but the ball sailed just over the outstretched arms of junior tight end Jamaal Lewis. The Sun Devils were forced to punt on fourth down, and never got the ball back.

'I didn't play with as much confidence as I should have on some of those plays,' Keller said. 'Some of those plays were open, but I waited too long because I don't think I trusted myself. If I could go back and do them again, they would have been open, and I would have completed the ball.'

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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