FSU’s improved defense faces stiff challenge in Tajh Boyd

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida State has made great strides on defense the past four years, improving from No. 100 to one of the nation’s top 5.

But for all of the Seminoles’ successes, there were few answers the past two years for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.

Boyd has thrashed Florida State’s defense with his arm and feet. He has thrown for 581 yards and six touchdowns while running for another, helping Clemson score 35 points in a 2011 win and 37 points in a 2012 loss.

The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Boyd has a strong arm, mobility and is a leader. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher sees something else that sets Boyd apart.

“His consistency,” Fisher said Monday. “That’s the thing we all get bored with. Great players are consistent in how they perform, the decision-making, the athleticism. What makes him a great player is that he does it every week. That’s the key to any great player.”

Boyd has delivered for No. 3 Clemson (6-0) going into this week’s ACC showdown with No. 5 Florida State (5-0). He has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,783 yards, 15 touchdowns and two interceptions this season.

He has surpassed the 300-yard mark in his last three games, including a school-record 455 yards in the 49-14 rout of Syracuse on Oct. 5.

What makes Boyd so good? He does a little bit of everything very well. He makes precise passes when given time, but if the pass rush gets to him he is effective at eluding tacklers and buying time to find an open receiver.

Fisher may think that the consistency is viewed as boring to fans, but here’s what that consistency has done. Boyd is 27-6 as a starter. And he needs just 164 passing yards to join a select group of 10,000-yard passers in ACC history. Former N.C. State star Philip Rivers leads the league at 13,484, and Duke’s Thaddeus Lewis had 10,065. Rivers is the San Diego Chargers’ longtime starter, and Lewis filled in as the starter for Buffalo last week.

Now a senior, Boyd could be an NFL starter next fall. And he has accumulated plenty of highlight plays against Florida State’s defense.

In 2011, Boyd passed for 344 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-30 win over visiting Florida State. Boyd found Sammy Watkins and Dwayne Allen on TD passes, and he had a TD run too. But with FSU trailing just 28-23 in the fourth quarter, Boyd found Watkins on a 62-yard TD pass to put the Seminoles away.

Last season, Boyd was on target early. He had touchdown passes on four of Clemson’s first seven drives to give the Tigers a 28-14 lead early in the third quarter. But then Florida State went on a 35-3 run and the Seminoles held on 49-37.

Still, Boyd threw for 237 yards and the three TDs.

Florida State’s defensive players haven’t forgotten. There is mutual respect for Boyd and Watkins. But the defensive backs would like another chance to redeem themselves.

“I think everybody out there is excited to go against them,” senior safety Terrence Brooks said. “It’s not even any intimidation or anything like that. We want the big stage. We want those late games like that with the big lights. We want people to be tuned into that. You shouldn’t shy away from that … I’m ready. I had this one marked down.”

That sentiment is shared by both teams in what is the biggest game in the ACC in at least eight years, since the last top-5 matchup (when No. 5 Miami defeated No. 3 Virginia Tech 27-7).

The ACC hasn’t had a game this significant this deep into October in a long time. Two unbeaten, top-5 teams. Two quarterbacks with Heisman prospects in Boyd and Florida State’s Jameis Winston. Two teams with not just ACC title hopes on the line but also national championship considerations.

For a conference that has been ridiculed the past few years for its struggles in both the regular season and in bowl games, Florida State vs. Clemson could give the nation a chance to rethink how it views the ACC.

“I think it’s something that we’ve been wanting, we’ve said that the other conferences have had those games,” Fisher said. “Now it’s here. You get to bring some notoriety to this conference. We feel like we have great football in the ACC and now we get a chance to showcase it. It’s great for the country to understand that we have two top-5 teams that have national-contender aspirations and abilities.”

Contact Bob Ferrante at bobferrante17@gmail.com

or on Twitter @bobferrante.