Kragthorpe: Utah State's coping without Chuckie Keeton
Holding a spiral notebook, walking stiffly with his surgically repaired left knee in a cast under his sweatsuit, Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton slowly made his way down the 60 rows from Romney Stadium's press box to the field Saturday afternoon.
The Aggies will always wonder what Keeton could have done, if not for his injury a month ago. Yet the surprising, comforting reality is their season may not turn out much differently without him.
USU still loves Chuckie, but as receiver Travis Reynolds said, "This team is not about one person."
That's what hit home Saturday afternoon, when former redshirt QB Darell Garretson passed for 370 yards (the most ever for a USU freshman) and three touchdowns in a 47-10 defeat of Hawaii.
"It wasn't my record that he broke, I can tell you that," said USU coach Matt Wells, a former Aggie QB.
Actually, Garretson topped Brett Stevens' 1985 performance. This guy may not be Chuckie Keeton, but he just might become another Adam Kennedy. With Keeton injured, Kennedy rescued a victory at Hawaii and then led the Aggies to four straight wins and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl bid as the starter in 2011.
Garretson is following a similar track. He's gaining the trust of Wells and expanding his game not that he's overly impressed with himself. Asked what the offense has proven in the last two games, Garretson said earnestly, "We're running the ball really well."
They're also throwing it pretty effectively. The obvious disclaimer is Hawaii's No. 106-ranked defense, but Wells likes how USU (5-4) has responded to the loss of Keeton and three other offensive starters.
Making his first Romney Stadium start, Garretson played into Saturday's remarkable convergence of quarterbacks and coaches with considerable history more favorable for some than others in this venue.
The school honored coach Charlie Weatherbie and the 1993 Aggie team that won the Las Vegas Bowl and memorably beat BYU 58-56 behind Anthony Calvillo's seven touchdowns via passing and running. Wells stood on the Aggie sideline that day as a freshman QB. Hawaii coach Norm Chow was in the press box then, calling BYU's plays as John Walsh passed for 619 yards in a loss.
And in another booth Saturday, not far from Keeton, it was almost eerie to see Hawaii graduate assistant Jordan Wynn back where his Utah quarterbacking career ended last season, due to another shoulder injury.
Garretson, meanwhile, showed he could throw the deep ball and mid-range routes with accuracy. "It looked like they cut him loose a little bit, and I thought he responded very, very well," Chow said.
Hawaii tried to pressure the freshman, but USU's offensive line protected Garretson and he was composed in the pocket. Garretson's biggest blemish was a screen pass that Hawaii's Tavita Woodward intercepted. But he hustled to make the tackle at the 4-yard line, and his mistake was quickly forgotten when USU linebacker Kyler Fackrell returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.
Five of Garretson's completions went for 30-plus yards, including a pass that he floated perfectly to Travis Reynolds for a third-quarter touchdown and an easy toss that his roommate, tight end Wyatt Houston, caught for a 44-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
"You can kind of hear the crowd roaring, because someone's open," Garretson said.
Those fans would like to know if the Aggies could have beaten BYU the night Keeton was hurt in the second quarter or knocked off Boise State the next week, when Craig Harrison started for USU and Garretson was activated at halftime.
What matters now is Garretson is salvaging a season that could have crumbled in Keeton's absence.