Nate Ketteringham

Pressed into action last year as Sacramento State's fourth-string quarterback, Nate Ketteringham has retained the starting job as a sophomore this season.

BOB SOLORIO, Sacramento State Athletics

A football team's top quarterback options hung up with injuries, an underclassman taking the reigns to lead an offense that's had to adapt -- quite painfully at times -- to his skill set.

Sound familiar, Griz fans?

Well Sacramento State's 2015 quarterback saga took what Montana experienced last year to another level. Where injuries to veterans Brady Gustafson and Chad Chalich almost did in the Grizzlies, the hard-luck Hornets were whittled down to their fourth-string quarterback by the midpoint of last season after an assault on the depth chart.

True freshman Nate Ketteringham emerged as Sac State's quarterback of the future, as much for of his ability with the ball as his avoidance of injury. Now a sophomore, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is still trying to take the next step as he leads his Hornets (1-5, 1-2 in Big Sky Conference) into Washington-Grizzly Stadium for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. clash with the Griz (4-1, 1-1).

The scars were many for Sacramento State in last year's 2-9 campaign and nowhere were they more evident than at quarterback. Opening-day starter Daniel Kniffin was lost after four games to a shoulder injury (from which he still has not fully recovered) and backup Kolney Cassell only made it two starts before his own season-shortening shoulder injury. Third-stringer Nolan Merker didn't escape the first game where he suffered a broken leg running out of a designed package.

That left Ketteringham, who was slated to redshirt and instead started from Week 7 onward. The Hornets didn't do a lot of winning in that stretch, but Ketteringham showed flashes of brilliance. He threw for four touchdowns and 287 yards in just his second career start against Idaho State, a 38-13 homecoming victory, and then went for four and 339 two weeks later at Northern Arizona.

He passed for 1,410 yards and 11 touchdowns with just three interceptions in the abbreviated season.

But progress has been hard to come by in 2016.

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Yardage is no problem for Ketteringham. He's fifth this fall in the Big Sky with 221.3 passing yards per game and a total of 1,328 as Sac State is compiling a respectable 375 yards per game overall. The Hornets rank dead last in the league in scoring, though, at just 20.3 points per game.

Some of that is on the still-young QB, Sac State head coach Jody Sears said. He's forcing throws and has as many touchdowns as interceptions: nine.

"He's a little inconsistent. ... Sometimes he sees too much, but he does a great job week in, week out preparing," Sears said. "... He's having a few growing pains, but I like his heart and his work habits."

The Hornets gave Ketteringham a break four weeks ago against Weber State, opting to go with Cassel after the first quarter with the starter largely ineffective that day and the previous week against FBS Fresno State. Cassel didn't turn it over but didn't score either and passed for just 116 yards in a 14-7 loss.

Ketteringham responded to the benching with two monster games the next two weeks.

Sac scored 34 and 41 points, the latter total coming in a win over Montana State on Oct. 1. Ketteringham threw for 683 yards and six TDs over that stretch with another 126 rushing yards.

Montana is specifically on the lookout for Ketterginham's scrambling ability this week, Griz defensive coordinator Jason Semore said.

"For us and our scheme, probably the scariest kid we've seen so far because he can get himself out of trouble with as aggressive as we are," Semore said. "We've been practicing all week having proper rush angles and understanding where we want him to go."

The battle of wits is on with Ketteringham at quarterback. The mental side of the game is where he feels he's made the most strides since being thrust into action this time a year ago.

"I feel like it was definitely a good learning experience, a good foundation for what we're trying to build going forward," he said. "(The game) has definitely slowed down a bit. When I was first in, it was pretty fast."

And as for the many quarterbacks now behind him? They'll likely stay there as long as Sacramento remains cured of last year's injury epidemic. Sears joked this week that Ketteringham's best skill has been his ability to stay healthy.

The QB is doing all he can to keep it that way, too.

"Last year it was trying to put on more weight so I could take hits," he explained. "A lot of it is just being smart, getting out of bounds when you need to and sliding to get down so you can keep a hit off yourself."

And keep the hits off the Hornets.

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