CLEMSON — With the final seconds of the second quarter ticking away Saturday night, Tajh Boyd took the snap from the Duke 30, dropped back, stepped into his throw and fired a laser of a pass, just over helmet level of several Blue Devil defenders.
It wound up right where it was supposed to – about 35 yards away, in the back middle of the end zone, right in Sammy Watkins’ hands.
It was Boyd’s fourth touchdown of the half, and perhaps his most impressive.
“It was about head high and had some smoke coming off it,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. “That was a pass as a quarterback, if you’ve ever played or coached it, those guys that make those throws are confident with it.”
Oh, Boyd is confident all right. With three games left in the regular season, the Tigers’ junior quarterback is making 2011’s season-ending swoon look like a distant memory. Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game with Maryland, Boyd is performing at an elite level. Over the last two weeks, he has 10 touchdowns against three interceptions, throwing for an average of 386 yards per game, with a program single-game record 428 yards at Wake Forest.
Those were also his most efficient games, improving his season pass efficiency rating to 170.2. That’s fourth nationally, on pace to be the best in Clemson history and the fifth-best in ACC history.
“He’s the leader of this football team and he’s playing like it,” Morris said. “He’s demonstrating it.”
Boyd’s numbers are up across the board from his first-team All-ACC sophomore season. A year ago, he threw for 24 touchdowns against three interceptions in Clemson’s first eight games. But as the season wore on, he put on weight, and his mobility and footwork suffered; he threw nine touchdowns against nine interceptions over the final six games.
A year ago, Boyd averaged 273.4 yards per game, completing 59.7 percent of his passes with 7.7 yards per attempt and a 141.2 efficiency rating.
This fall, he’s averaging 297.8 yards per game, completing 67.8 percent of his passes and averaging 9.5 yards per attempt. With at least four games remaining, he has 25 touchdowns against nine interceptions
“I think it’s starting to come along,” Boyd said. “It’s one of those deals where I feel like as an offense we’re starting to hit on what we can control. We’re scoring on most of our drives, and capitalizing on any opportunities we have. I’m just excited about the rate we’re going on. I don’t see a point where we may drop off. It’s starting to finally click the way we’re wanting to.”
Saturday, Boyd had a career-high three interceptions at Duke, but one came on a first-half-ending Hail Mary, and a second was ripped away in the air from tight end Sam Cooper on a well-thrown ball.
More important, he said, was moving past the interceptions mentally, something he’s had trouble doing in the past.
“They’re stats, but at the same time they’re kind of irrelevant,” Boyd said. “I think for me personally, it’s one of those deals where you don’t ever want to throw a pick – it doesn’t look good, it doesn’t feel good – but at the same time, I think I’ve grown enough to the point where it doesn’t affect you at all.”
Morris praises Boyd’s improved footwork in the pocket, which has helped him find improved rush and release points.
“It’s something we’ve really worked on and that he’s tried hard to work on, both under center and in the gun,” Morris said. “Being able to be accurate with his footwork. There’s always room for improvement. I think it carries over to his running ability.”
That is perhaps the most improved area of Boyd’s overall game. After ballooning as high as 235 pounds by the end of last season, he slimmed down in the offseason and has kept the weight off, weighing in this week at 218.
His rushing numbers have flourished; he has 350 yards and five rushing touchdowns, and that doesn’t include 176 yards subtracted due to sacks. At Duke, he had 72 yards on nine carries, including a 21-yard open-field touchdown that ranks among his best runs.
“Me and my dad used to talk about all the time, being able to run and be as confident as much as you are in your throwing ability,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. I’m not going to say I’m an extreme runner. I’ll run when I’m given the opportunity presents itself. But it helps out a lot in that sense. I’ve got to continue to grow with it.”
With the excess weight excised, Boyd is as confident as ever.
“He’s seen it as his best and he’s seen where he can’t move or escape trouble, elude any type of rush,” Morris said. “We don’t want to do that. We don’t want to go back there. I think he sees his footwork is as good as it’s been, he’s as strong as he’s been, and all that combined with the confidence level he has I think it’s showing on the field.”