Judging the impact of Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton’s knee injury requires some guessing about the Aggies’ future without him — and about what those six remaining regular-season games would have been like with him.
The summary is this may become the most significant injury that ever affected a football team in Utah, if the Aggies fail to qualify for a bowl game. But such a development appears unlikely.
The biggest impact involves this week’s game with Boise State. Even if you concede Friday’s loss to BYU, considering how the Cougars held a 10-7 lead, were containing Keeton and scored 21 points after his exit, USU would have had a great shot at beating the Broncos on Saturday in Logan. Boise State is only a seven-point favorite, even with Craig Harrison as USU’s presumed starting quarterback.
If the Aggies lose Saturday, they’ll be 3-4. But as of today, they’d be favored in their remaining five games: at New Mexico, Hawaii, at UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming. So anything short of 6-6 or 7-5 would represent a huge collapse.
The ultimate effect of Keeton’s injury, then, involves Mountain West championship implications. Beyond that, the Aggies should have enough overall talent and determination to make a bowl game and salvage the season.
That’s not to dismiss Keeton’s absence, in any sense. He’s such a good person and means so much to USU and Cache Valley that his injury is a huge setback. The prognosis of an eight-month recovery should have him fully available for summer workouts, leading into his senior season. But he’ll missed for the rest of 2013, both in terms of fans not getting to watch him play and the way he elevated his teammates.
Keeton may prove to be one of those players whose value increases in his absence. It would not take much of a drop-off to make Keeton’s injury have the biggest impact in Utah’s modern college football history, because other schools have recovered fairly well in similar situations.
It could be argued that if quarterback Jordan Wynn had stayed healthy, Utah would have qualified for a bowl game last season. Yet I’m not sure Ute fans would be the ones making that case, so I’ll disregard that example.
There have been some memorable transitions. In 1977, BYU’s Gifford Nielsen was a Heisman Trophy candidate before injuring his knee in early October, but Marc Wilson responded with seven touchdown passes the following week at Colorado State and BYU finished 9-2. In 2005, Utah’s Brian Johnson was among the nation’s leaders in total offense when he injured his knee in the 10th game, but backup Brett Ratliff beat BYU and Georgia Tech in a bowl game. In 2011, Jon Hays filled in for Wynn and helped the Utes win four Pac-12 games, plus a bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
In Logan, there’s actual evidence of how the Aggies have responded without Keeton. As a freshman in 2011, he was injured in the first half at Hawaii, when USU stood 2-5. Adam Kennedy rallied USU to a win that night, and followed with four more victories to secure the Aggies’ first bowl bid in 14 years.
As remarkable as Kennedy’s performance was, though, the junior college transfer had shown some ability by competing with Keeton for the starting job right until the season opener at Auburn. Harrison’s case is different, obviously. And Kennedy, who redshirted last season after being injured, chose to transfer and play as a graduate student, rather than remain at USU behind Keeton. Kennedy is now Arkansas State’s starting quarterback.
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