Chuckie Keeton for the Heisman?
Knock that grin off your face.
Had anybody heard of Johnny Football last year at this time?
Somewhere on the edges of their minds, most experts at least have a vague notion of Chuckie Touchdown.
And they know him better now.
They know he deserved better on Thursday night.
It would have been a storybook start down the trophy track had Utah State actually beat Utah in the season opener at Rice-Eccles Stadium, instead of losing 30-26. But only a small part of that was Chuckie’s fault. As a national television audience watched, Keeton threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another 85 yards and one score. Over a first half in which the quarterback rolled up 202 passing yards, Keeton was trending on Twitter.
He didn’t play perfectly, but he abused the Ute defense in ways it didn’t want to imagine, but looked as though it half-expected.
In the aftermath, Kyle Whittingham called Keeton a “Heisman-type player.” Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake looked toward the sky when he was asked about Keeton.
“Chuckie is one of the best quarterbacks we’ve ever had to defend against,” he said. “The guy is … the guy is … great. We had to rely on a cramp to stop him.”
Sitake was referring to a key sequence early in the fourth quarter, when the Utes were protecting a 24-23 margin, and Keeton had driven his team to within a few yards of the Utah goal line. After picking up four yards, Keeton’s leg knotted up, causing him to miss a critical play, a play on which the Aggies lost three yards. They settled for a field goal, making it 26-24. Not enough to preserve the win. Keeton spent most of the following crunch minutes watching his defense fail to stop the Ute O.
At game’s end, with his hands on his hips and his helmet tilted back, he ducked into a disappointed locker room. When he emerged, Keeton told a mouthful of lies, blaming himself for the loss.
“Our first game didn’t go as planned,” he said. “… We had a lot of three-and-outs. I blame that on myself … I put a lot of that on myself.”
Yeah, he gained all those yards and completed 31 of 40 passes — with zero interceptions. Again and again, he provided his team’s best hope for victory here in a game it could have and maybe should have won.
“The kid played his heart out,” Matt Wells said of his MVP. “He left it all out on the field.”
Keeton made huge plays with his arm and with his feet, even when his shoe popped off on a third-down scramble that set up a late touchdown in the second quarter, giving the Aggies’ their first lead, at 17-14.
He opened the third quarter with a sweet 75-yard drive, capping it with a 15-yard touchdown run. As his defense troubled the Utah offense early on, he doubled the trouble against Sitake’s D. It was an impressive showing, considering questions that had hung over Utah State in fall camp regarding its receivers — and a supposed lack of big-play targets.
Somehow, Keeton discovered them.
When he wasn’t completing passes, some of them smoked darts, he was either smartly throwing the ball away to avoid sacks, or moving the chains on the ground. At times, he made Utah’s pass rush look silly, spinning away from pressure, keeping plays and drives alive.
He did have a fumble that killed a first-half drive, a careless error in which he was surrounded by traffic and neglected to take care of the ball. But on a night defined, at least on USU’s positive part, by Keeton’s passes, Wells was willing to give his quarterback a pass on that play.
All told, the Aggies outgained the Utes, 487 yards to 450. But down by a slim margin, exiled to the sidelines for most of the final five minutes — until the last few seconds — on account of his defense, Keeton went down to defeat.
He may not win the Heisman, but defeat likely will be a stranger to him most of this season.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.