Keller ignites big-play Sun Devil attack

Updated: September 29, 2005, 3:36 PM ET
By Ted Miller | Special to ESPN.com

Dark Helmet was right. Light speed is too slow.

USC and Arizona State, the Nos. 2 and 4 offenses in the land, play only at ludicrous speed.

Talk about two programs that throw spaceballs, er, footballs around. The top-ranked Trojans and No. 14 Sun Devils combine for an average of 1,208 yards and 106 points per game.

Folks, that's 69 percent of a mile covered against two SEC and two Pac-10 teams, as well as squads from the Big Ten and WAC, rather than a series of lightweight directional schools.

Everybody already knows about Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dwayne Jarrett, Steve Smith and so on -- all that redundant Heisman Trophy, All-American, Mr. President, Jessica Simpson, first-round pick, Hollywood this-and-that yadda yadda yadda.

Sam Keller
Sam Keller has thrown 16 TD passes in 2005.

Now this Sam Keller -- he's something new. The Arizona State junior quarterback has swaggered out of the desert and onto the scene with 16 touchdown passes, three more than anyone else in the nation.

"Sam Keller is just killing it in the throwing game," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "They've been striking people down the field, big plays one right after another, and have not been slowed down at all -- they are a very explosive football team."

Beyond the big numbers, Keller plays with panache, a quality that debuted when he performed a "Mr. Miyagi Dance" -- think "Karate Kid" -- upon throwing a touchdown pass in his first start in last season's Sun Bowl against Purdue. He jigged his way to 370 yards and three touchdowns in the dramatic victory, earning game MVP honors.

"It was pretty funny," All-American receiver Derek Hagan said. "They caught him doing it on the television."

He's no prima donna, though. His coaches and teammates celebrate his toughness nearly as much as his accuracy hurling the deep ball.

In the course of throwing for 365 yards and four touchdowns against Oregon State, Keller took a couple of big licks from the Beavers. Once, he waved off a referee coming to his aid. Another time, as he dusted himself off, he had a message for the defender.

"He said, 'I want you to hit me again,'" Hagan recalled.

"My style is to have a little swagger," Keller said. "First and foremost, I value being humble. I wouldn't say I am cocky."

One gets a feeling his teammates and some opponents might roll their eyes at that assertion.

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He has reason to be fairly happy with himself, too. He's completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,443 yards and hasn't thrown an interception in his last 127 attempts. If he manages to throw 11 passes without a pick against the Trojans, he'll break Mike Pagel's 25-year-old school record.

Keller isn't running one of those namby-pamby West Coast offenses, either. He likes to go downfield and isn't shy about it. He averages a stout 16.4 yards per completion (it's worth noting that Leinart's is a yard better), and he has the confidence and arm strength to throw aggressively into coverage and still make the completion.

"[Keller] is really confident throwing the ball down the field," Carroll said. "And he doesn't have to see guys wide open running by themselves either. He'll stick it in there with coverage around them."

He may need to be perfect against USC. While the Trojans' defense is young and has struggled with injuries, it appeared to catch its rhythm in the second half against Oregon, another team with a high-powered offense. While USC has given ground, it also has allowed only 15.7 points per game.

Arizona State's defense is solid -- it had eight sacks and forced six turnovers last weekend -- but it won't strike fear into anyone. Oregon State piled up 525 yards and 31 first downs.

As good as the Sun Devils' offense has been, USC's is without peer (Texas Tech's reprehensible nonconference schedule disqualifies it from this discussion). The Trojans have piled up 616 yards and nearly 60 points per game.

"How do you stop an offense like that? No one has," Arizona State coach Dirk Koetter said. "We have good stats on offense. But USC's stats are unheard of."

Ludicrous stats.

Then there's the little matter of last year. The Sun Devils were unbeaten and ranked 15th in 2004, when the top-ranked Trojans delivered a 45-7 whipping. In that matchup of quick-strike offenses, USC outgained Arizona State 446-243.

"We just stunk it up in that game last year," Koetter said. "We totally got our butt kicked."

With College GameDay making a rare West Coast jaunt and a crowd expected to eclipse 70,000, this one feels like a marquee showdown, perhaps the Pac-10 game of the year.

The Sun Devils may be the only team on USC's schedule capable of surviving an offensive shootout with the Trojans.

To go in another cinematic direction: These are the only two offenses in the country that go up to 11 on the volume dial.

Koetter has called this his best team. Ending USC's 25-game winning streak would be a heck of way to demonstrate that.

"It would skyrocket [Arizona State]," Hagan said. "If we win this game, there is no telling what is going to happen. Nationally, everybody will be watching out for Arizona State."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Ted Miller | email

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