Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe decided to find out what happens to the Nebraska’s West Coast offense when you take away its running game. He discovered that, at least at this point in the season, you’re left with a much-publicized but unproven quarterback and an offense that’s out of synch.After two weeks at the helm, Sam Keller still has not found his rhythm within the Husker system.
Keller had three turnovers and one touchdown pass as Nebraska barely escaped the Deep South with a 20-17 victory Saturday. If you listened closely, you could hear Husker fans across the nation breathing a collective sigh of relief, and whispering prayers of thanks for Zackary Bowman’s recovery from double knee surgery.
What you’re hearing now is the Husker Nation holding its breath waiting for Keller to prove himself. For now, the Arizona State transfer still looks like an inexperienced quarterback in Nebraska’s West Coast offense.
Keller, who came into the season with a gunslinger reputation, has yet to show that he can complete a big downfield pass. Consequently, opposing defensive backs are s tarting to cheat up on him and make his short passing game an adventure. But you get the feeling that he’ll break loose. Maybe it will happen next week against No. 1-rated Southern California.
It looked like it would happen against Wake Forest when Keller led a classic two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter to give the Huskers a 13-10 halftime lead. But NU never took control of the game, although it did improve to 22-1 in games coached by Bill Callahan where NU has led at halftime.
On a hot, muggy day in Winston-Salem, N.C., Keller and the NU offense had their chances to get some second-half breathing room. After Marlon Lucky gave NU a 20-17 lead with a 22-yard TD run at 8:20 of the third quarter, The Huskers had the ball five times with the lead, but got no points out of any of those drives. With the offense failing to show a killer instinct, it left the game in the hands of the Blackshirts, and they came through, thanks to some key tackles for loss by Ndamukong Suh and a big end zone interception by Bowman that denied Sam Swank, the Deacons’ All-American placekicker, a chance to tie the game in the final minutes,
Keller had given Wake its chance by failing to protect the ball in the face of a heavy pass rush inside his own 10-yard line. His decision making under pressure has been spotty in the first two games. He had several balls dropped, but he missed some open receivers, most notably on the Huskers’ first drive of the third quarter, when he missed Maurice Purify and Todd Peterson, both of whom were open for likely touchdowns.
Keller’s stats weren’t bad. He completed 24 of 41 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown, but the three turnovers give cause for concern. Then again, he was performing behind an offensive line that looked ordinary at best. Wake outrushed Nebraska by a 2-to-1 margin (236-115) and allowed only 27 first-half rushing yards by the Huskers. The Deacons looked every bit as physical as Nebraska up front.
Was it a classic case of being lulled to sleep by an 0-1 team while looking ahead to USC in what could be one of the biggest games ever played in Memorial Stadium? Or do the problems go deeper? The nation will be watching closely on Sept. 15, when NU has the opportunity to leave the questions behind and move back into college football’s elite with a tremendous performance against Southern Cal.
The Trojans didn’t prove a lot with a 38-10 win over Idaho last week, and then had this weekend off. If they come into Lincoln with an inflated sense of self-importance, they might feel some pain. But only if Keller is sharp.