Two weeks ago, after a play in the fourth quarter of the Utah game, Chuckie Keeton jogged across the field and retrieved his shoe from the turf. It was eerily reminiscent of a scene two years earlier against the same opponent and in that same stadium when Keeton didn't need shoes.
That lost shoe in the fourth quarter didn't just remind us of a similar game we lost in Salt Lake two years ago, it also served as a reminder of the Chuckie Keeton we may have lost.
Fast forward to Saturday's game against Washington. There were a few scrambles, a few hints of his old elusiveness, but the enduring image of that game will be a limping, battered Keeton, taking blow after blow in the pocket as the offense sputtered.
Since the injury in 2013, not to mention the 2014 reinjury, Keeton hasn't looked the same. Every game fans have waited to see vintage Keeton, and though there have been glimpses, those fans are still waiting. As the Aggie faithful wait for answers, some are beginning to question: Would Utah State be better with Darell Garretson under center?
When Garretson left the program last spring, Utah State was confident in the quarterback situation. Kent Myers was fresh off a rookie campaign that saw him win 5 games as a starter. Oregon transfer Damion Hobbs was heralded as some sort of cyborg QB, with legs programmed for speed, and a rocket launcher for an arm. Cade Smith would likely redshirt.
Then there was Keeton, the cartographer who had been putting Utah State on the map since he announced his presence against Auburn in 2011. During his time in Logan, he had become the face of the program, a hero on campus, and a legend in the community. He had outlasted coaches and conference changes, and seen the team win more games in four years (37) than in the previous 11 combined (36).
It made sense for Garretson to transfer. Right? At his peak, Keeton was a one man wrecking crew, laying waste to everything in his path. Garretson was mostly a game manager with some nice touch on his deep ball. But the first two games of the season have reminded us, that "peak" Keeton was two years and an ACL/MCL ago.
Looking at their side by side numbers since the first injury gives us this
Since the injury, there is no question that Garretson's numbers are better. Keeton has struggled with accuracy and thrown as many picks in six games as he did his entire 13 game sophomore campaign (9). There is ample ammunition here for those who believe the Aggies should've appointed Garretson as QB1 last spring.
However, the sample size for Keeton is small and there have been mitigating factors. In 2014 he hadn't had sufficient time on the new knee and was still adjusting to game speed. It didn't help that he was given zero protection against a hyper athletic front 7 from a Tennessee program on the rise. Against Idaho State he was unspectacular, but against Wake Forest he was 20-27 for 166 yards in the first half.
This season has also started out with rocky performances against a lightweight FCS team and two power 5 teams, but despite the turnovers, Keeton has had some moments. The two fourth quarter turnovers against the Utes were on plays where he was under pressure from very good defensive front. He was hit on what seemed like every snap in the fourth quarter against Washington.
The real reason why Keeton looks different than in previous years, deals with the skill around him. In week one the Aggie receiving corps was out Jo Jo Natson (dismissed from team), Hunter Sharp (suspended), Brandon Swindall (injury), and Zach Van Leeuwen (concussion). That's four starting caliber wide receivers down or out. None of the replacements got open against SUU, and those that did usually dropped the ball.
The other problem is the O line, which is maybe being coached by a pacifist monk. We won't get to into that too much right now, but go watch the highlights of the Utah game and you'll see that on the two fourth quarter turnovers, Keeton was given a combined 3 milliseconds to get the ball off, and was hit hard on each play. It appears the blocking scheme on pass attempts are patterned after the "let him through" play from Remember the Titans, but Keeton has yet to be informed he's playing Sunshine's role.
With the early season troubles largely stemming from issues with the receiving corps and O-line, it's hard to argue that a less mobile Garretson would be an improvement at this point. With the receiving corps now mostly intact, if the offensive line can improve to a basic level of competency, the doubts about Keeton will be silenced. There is a precedent: the line was equally sieve-like to start 2014 but improved as the season went on. With more time to throw and a more established run game (the team currently boasts a dismal 3.5 ypc average), Keeton will begin to look more like the quarterback Aggie fans are used to. And if the line doesn't improve? No one will want to be in Keeton's shoes.