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Full circle for a square peg

Times Staff Writer

LINCOLN, Neb. -- “Destiny is not a matter of chance,” the quotation reads above the entrance to the Osborne Athletic Complex. “It is a matter of choice.”

The phrase is credited to Nebraska politician and statesman William Jennings Bryan, but the words might as well be inscribed on a chain around the neck of Nebraska senior quarterback Sam Keller.

Two years ago, while starring at Arizona State, Keller disappeared into halftime at Sun Devil Stadium with a 21-3 lead over No. 1 USC.

Keller raised his arms to a jubilant student section on his way to the locker room. The upset victory was going to make Arizona State a national title contender and possibly make an All-American out of Keller.

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A reporter for the Arizona Republic proclaimed “game over” in the press box and a reporter from Los Angeles scribbled the premature proclamation on his notepad.

Less than a year later, Keller woke up here, running Nebraska’s scout team.

Bad dream?

“Probably the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Keller said.

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Keller played that second half against USC in 2005 and had four passes intercepted, the last hitting star receiver Derek Hagan in the hands before the ball trickled somewhat miraculously into the arms of USC’s Kevin Ellison, who made the game-cinching pick while flat on his back.

USC rallied to win, 38-28, and it was Keller’s turn to go belly-up.

He suffered torn thumb ligaments the following week at Oregon, relinquished the job to Rudy Carpenter, then earned his starting spot back before the 2006 season, only to lose it the next day when Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter, reportedly under pressure from players, gave the job back to Carpenter.

And that was Keller’s cactus career.

He transferred to Nebraska, sat out last year, and will be in the huddle here Saturday night when No. 1 USC plays the Cornhuskers.

Nebraska is ranked No. 14 in this week’s Associated Press poll.

Arizona State was No. 14 when it played host to top-ranked USC on Oct. 1, 2005.

“Kind of weird how it ends up,” Keller said in a recent interview on campus. “You get another crack at a team that was, in actuality, your last point of success as a starter. . . . I never would have foreseen this.”

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Keller foresaw beating USC two years ago and leading Arizona State to the Pacific 10 Conference championship, if not the national title.

After stepping in for injured Andrew Walter to win most-valuable-player honors in the 2004 Sun Bowl -- he threw for 370 yards in a victory over Purdue -- Keller opened the 2005 season by passing for a school-record 669 yards in his first two games.

Forty touchdowns and 4,000 yards seemed possible. Keller might even have turned pro.

“That could have happened if I didn’t get hurt, or that could have happened if I had beaten USC,” he said.

Plans changed. Arizona State went one way and Keller went another.

Nebraska was running low on quarterbacks after touted prospect Harrison Beck transferred to North Carolina State.

“When he raised his hand to come, I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Nebraska Coach Bill Callahan said of Keller.

What happened at Arizona State remains somewhat a mystery.

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This is Keller’s don’t-want-to-talk-about-it version:

“It was a business decision they made, players and coaches alike,” he said. “Me, I made my own decision . . . and that was not to stay there.”

One story: Keller’s teammates didn’t trust him with the quarterback keys, so they revolted at a team meeting. Keller had a reputation as a partyer. There were posted pictures of him in the company of booze and girls.

The Omaha World-Herald, in a recent article, quoted an anonymous former Arizona State player saying a couple of seniors complained about Keller’s off-field behavior and essentially “threw him under the bus.”

There was another plausible theory that, if a choice had to be made between quarterbacks, Keller was more expendable. He had only one year of eligibility left compared with three for Carpenter, who might have transferred had Koetter stuck with Keller.

Keller, who turns 23 on Sept. 28, has never denied that he likes to socialize. He is of legal drinking age. When frequenting bars now, Keller is careful not to have a drink in his hand when someone snaps a picture.

He also says Internet stories regarding him were overblown.

Rather than beat the stories down, Keller said, he ignored them.

“You can’t let it bother you or it will tear you up,” he said. “Half the reason people say some of the things is they want a reaction out of you. They want to see you go in the tank, they want to see things get worse and worse. And the reason is, you were once way up there. And once you’re on top they want to knock you off.”

Keller knew there would be trust issues when he transferred into town. “You come to a place and you’re new, and your picture is on the front page of the paper before you even get here,” Keller said. “It’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

He couldn’t just walk in here with his gunslinger reputation, so he made a calculated decision. “The minute I got here I went to work,” he said. “I became a grinder.”

Callahan knew about the rumors that trailed Keller from Arizona State.

“None of that factored in,” he said. “People asked me the same thing you’re talking about. I don’t know what went on, I don’t really care what went on. All I’m happy about is that he’s here and playing for us.”

Nebraska players said they would have been suspicious had Keller walked into town with an attitude.

“If he would have come in with a big head, he obviously would have shunned some guys,” senior safety Bryan Wilson said. “Sam’s not that guy. . . . He came in humble. He ran the scout team last year.”

Wilson even did his own research on Keller.

“I knew a couple of guys who went to ASU,” Wilson said. “Everybody said the same thing. He’s a good guy. He wasn’t arrogant; he was just a fun-loving guy who loves football.”

Go to school, go to practice -- “books and ball,” as Callahan says.

Isn’t that how a new player earns respect?

“You just show them,” Keller said. “Talk is cheap. Everything that circulated [in Arizona] was all talk, know what I mean? I just had to come here and be myself. The whole process made me realize how much I love football, and how blessed I was to have this second opportunity. Because it was taken and yanked away, and I’ve had to crawl my way back.”

Keller has not been spectacular in victories against Nevada and Wake Forest. He is averaging 225.5 yards passing per game, with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Part of Keller’s problem in the past was that he sometimes took too many chances on the field -- that’s the gunslinger in him. He has had to accept a more mature approach in Callahan’s West Coast offense. But even Callahan says: “I don’t want to kill his spirit. I told him, ‘All I’m trying to do is get you to maintain your poise, keep you thinking ahead, keep you thinking through the job.’ ”

Unlike with the Arizona State team he led in 2005, Keller has a marquee tailback to lean on at Nebraska in Marlon Lucky, who is third in the nation with 323 yards rushing.

As far as destiny goes, well, Keller made his choice and it wasn’t by chance.

And now top-ranked USC is coming back to town -- a different town.

Two years after Keller thought he’d flushed it all away that day in Tempe, the gunslinger gets one more shot here in Lincoln.

Don’t expect any first-half fist pumps this time.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sam’s new club

Sam Keller passed for 3,018 yards and 26 touchdowns in three seasons at Arizona State. A thumb injury prematurely ended his 2005 season. He was MVP of the 2004 Sun Bowl, his first start.

*--* KELLER’S 2007 STATISTICS IN NEBRASKA’S FIRST TWO WINS *--*

*--* Date Opp. result Comp Att Yds Comp % Long TD Int Rating Sept. 1 vs. Nevada 14 25 193 56.0 25 1 1 126.05 52-10 Sept. 8 at Wake Forest 24 41 258 58.5 30 1 2 109.69 20-17 *--*

Los Angeles Times


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