LINCOLN, Neb. -- They were saying terrible things about Sam Keller at Arizona State. He was a party guy, or worse. A teammates' dad supposedly had jumped into the character assassination, ripping him behind his back.
"I heard that too," Nebraska's quarterback says calmly. "I could have pounded my fists into the table and thinking that would be horrible if that was true."
Keller has cemented himself during his short time as a Cornhusker. (AP) Until that moment a year ago when everything turned, it seemed like they were saying great things about Sam Keller. He was a wonderful wild child in that 2004 Sun Bowl, throwing three touchdown passes. Bowing to the ASU sideline sumo-wrestler style after one. That's what bowl MVPs do.
Before a thumb injury in 2005, he had thrown for 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in seven starts. It seemed like nothing would replace the feeling he had at halftime of that season's USC game. Arizona State led 21-3 at home, in blistering heat. All the Sun Devils had to do was blow and the tiring Trojans would fall.
"Oh, I felt like we had them, absolutely," Keller said. "There was never a minute where I didn't feel like that. But they got a couple of fortunate picks."
Actually, there were five Keller interceptions in that game. USC came from 18 down to win by 10 in a game that stands as a metaphor for the quarterback's career.
In that one afternoon Sam Keller went from effective to picked apart. A year ago, in one weekend he went from starter to backup. Then in three days he went from Tempe, Ariz. to Lincoln.
"I wondered," Keller said recently, "how I could go from being so good to being at Nebraska."
Exodus from the desert
This is not a story of redemption. Not yet. In two games at Nebraska he has thrown more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). A crippling fumble at his own 10 almost blew the game Saturday at Wake Forest.
Considering his meetings with USC (0-2, only one as a starter), every teammate at Nebraska has a better mark against the nation's No. 1 team than Keller.
All that beats last August. Keller's head was still spinning at the end of that month. On a Friday two weeks before the start of the season, the senior was named Arizona State's starting quarterback. That night he tore it up in a scrimmage. By Saturday afternoon, though, Keller had been summoned to coach Dirk Koetter's office.
Koetter had changed his mind. He had made a "mistake." It was a "business decision." Rudy Carpenter was going to be the starter.
"I was just completely shocked," Keller said. "It was unbelievable."
That had never been done, at least in recent memory. Quarterback battles are just that -- battles. The best man wins, not the best man after a review from the replay booth.
There still isn't a clear reason why Koetter changed his mind. That led to speculation, which led to those terrible things being said. Koetter eventually was fired after last season. Keller? With only a year of eligibility left, he felt his career crumbling around him. When the decision was reversed, Mom was on her way to the airport. Dad was heading back to his office in Las Vegas.
"Please," Sam said through the cell phone. "Come back."
There were tears and soul searching for a while. Then Sam and dad Mike got down to business. Mike played football at Michigan and for the Cowboys. He is currently a sports management consultant. It was easy to get down to football business: Who, they rationalized, wanted a 6-foot-4, 230-pound former Pac-10 stud?
Nebraska showed the most love. So Arizona State's one-time starter traveled to Lincoln where there was a new coach, new teammates and where he'd have to sit out his transfer year.
The Next One at Nebraska
By chance, Bill Callahan knew all about Keller when the quarterback became a free agent. Callahan had lived in Danville, Calif. while coaching the Oakland Raiders. Keller was still in high school there at San Ramon Valley.
Bill Callahan is still searching for a signature win at Nebraska. (Getty Images) "You could tell he was going to be good," the Nebraska coach said. "The main thing was he came in here real humble, not like he had all these records at Arizona State."
Understand that Nebraska is all about quarterbacks at this point in its history. When Callahan arrived in 2004, he put the word out. In the last two seasons school records have been set for passing yards. Zac Taylor was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2006.
Callahan can talk about more offensive balance, but it's all about finding the trigger man to execute his Bible-thick playbook. There was a "battle" in the spring and fall with junior Joe Ganz, but it almost seemed like it was for show.
Keller was named the starter shortly before the season. Callahan didn't change his mind.
"We're in an impatient business," Callahan said. "He (Keller) gives us a whole different dimension."
Welcome to Lincoln
Thursdays are Lincoln's big "social night" as linebacker Cory McKeon puts it. "O" Street lights up as students get lit up.
The problem is strength coach Dave Kennedy knew that too. He scheduled lifting sessions for 6 a.m. on Fridays during the offseason.
Senior leaders lead, so McKeon had an idea. Instead of going out on Thursday night, getting blotto and having to pay for it the next morning, the boys would tip a few in moderation on Thursday afternoons.
Call it intelligent beer design.
"At 1 or 2 we'd go over to this place, play Golden Tee and drink Blue Moon for like three or four hours and talk ball," McKeon said. "Just football guys sitting around talking ball."
"That was big for him."
A kid from northern California coming to Nebraska by way of the desert, Keller just wanted to fit in. For some reason they bonded, the linebacker from Naperville, Ill. and the transfer quarterback from Danville. McKeon demanded Keller's cell phone number in one of their first encounters.
"I went up to him and said, 'What about two-a-days, you're going to be bored,' " McKeon said.
Keller responded by asking to go straight to the scout team.
Normally, an accomplished transfer quarterback would stay to the side, observing, study the playbook, drink in the offense. Instead, Keller was the offense -- Missouri's, Iowa State's, Colorado's, Texas' -- mimicking that week's quarterback on the scout team.
"Him and I hit it off right off the bat," McKeon said. "He wanted a chance to roast me all day (in practice). He doesn't have that quarterback attitude where everything has to be precise. He was willing to be cutthroat and willing to be that dangerous player."
That attitude made Keller an honorary member of The Blackshirts, the nickname for Nebraska's vaunted (at least in the past) defense.
The bitterness is gone. It oozed out of Keller about the time McKeon welcomed him to Lincoln.
"I don't consider myself a Sun Devil," Keller now says flatly. "I'm a Husker."
"It's not about proving himself," McKeon says of his boy. "He wants to start gunning some teams down."
How to beat the Trojans
It's been a while since Nebraska gunned down much of anything. Callahan still doesn't have that corner-turning win. Sure, the Huskers won the Big 12 North in '06, but Callahan's slow and steady progress had been just that.
The bitterness is gone and Keller is focused. (US Presswire) In last season's game at USC, he called a conservative game trying to milk things to the fourth quarter and hope for the best. Instead, Nebraska looked timid and lost by 18.
That's why the Huskers and Keller need each other. Both are trying to regain lost glory. Callahan was fired a year after taking the Raiders to the Super Bowl. Nebraska hasn't won the Big 12 since 1999. It hasn't beaten a No. 1 team at home since 1978.
If not for Koetter's decision, Keller might be in the NFL right now. He has a linebacker's body and a pro arm. And, at least an idea of how to beat the Trojans.
Keller can see each one of the five interceptions in mind from two years ago. He had thrown 131 consecutive passes without a pick until the barrage came, those "fortunate picks."
"A high point at ASU was just that season, being on fire," Keller said. "If I didn't throw for 300 yards it was a disappointment. We were just lighting people up. Going in at halftime against SC, up 21-3 that was a high point.
"That's the kind of stuff you miss. You miss pouring everything into what you do just to play on Saturday."
Are there any high points left? Two years since USC, a year since Arizona State and two days to go before No. 1, we're about to find out.