Ron Morris

Morris: Clemson's leaders step up in spotlight

rmorris@thestate.comOctober 26, 2012 

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.

One had his coming out party Thursday night at BB&T Field. The other made his comeback statement in Clemson’s 42-13 victory against Wake Forest.

Those Clemson fans waiting for Sammy Watkins to look like his old self need wait no more. The sensational wide receiver caught eight passes for a program-record 202 yards and a touchdown.

Those same Clemson fans who wondered if Tajh Boyd was headed for another prolonged slump need wonder no more. Boyd passed for a program record-tying five touchdowns and a program-record 428 yards.

“Tajh was just lights out. He got a little sloppy in the third quarter, but really just lights out,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “I think he set a school record for passing yards and maybe everybody will quit asking me about Sammy Watkins now.”

With 177 yards receiving by halftime, Watkins already had his career high. Then his 14-yard reception early in the fourth quarter eclipsed the 200-yard mark and the program-record 197 yards by teammate DeAndre Hopkins earlier this season against Boston College.

“It was good to see him back full speed and full effect,” Boyd said of Watkins. “We’ve got to keep working him in there and keep letting him do what he does and he can be special.”

It took the first half for Boyd to tie the program record for touchdown passes in a game. He had five by then, tying the mark he set against North Carolina a season ago and Cullen Harper set twice in 2007.

Boyd’s single-game passing yardage record might need an asterisk. Swinney kept Boyd in the game late specifically to break the record, which he did on a 37-yard completion to Martavis Bryant. That topped the record of 420 yards by Charlie Whitehurst in 2002 against Duke.

“He was just throwing perfectly like he did in practice all week,” Watkins said of Boyd.

Watkins was considered an ACC player of the year candidate entering the season after earning league rookie of the year honors a season ago. But he was slowed by a two-game suspension to start the season and missed the Boston College game with a stomach virus.

On top of that, defenses were scheming to stop Watkins, often playing physical against him at the line of scrimmage and sometimes double-teaming him in the secondary.

Through Clemson’s five games, Watkins had 10 catches for 76 yards. Granted, he did not play in three of those games, but it still raised questions about whether he had been hit by a sophomore jinx.

Watkins finally broke loose a week ago against Virginia Tech with eight catches for 84 yards, but it extended his streak of games without 100 yards receiving to eight. Then he left little doubt he was back to form during the first half Thursday with receptions covering 61, 57 and 50 yards.

When Boyd had an off day a week ago against Virginia Tech, there was some concern he might experience another slump like he did over the final four games a year ago. Boyd threw 27 touchdown passes against seven interceptions through 10 games last season, then had six touchdown strikes against five interceptions over the final four games.

Boyd was his sensational self through the opening six games this season, passing for 1,748 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. But his 12-for-21 performance for 160 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Virginia Tech proved to be an aberration.

That is because he came out firing against Wake Forest and posted one of the top first-half performances in Clemson history. He was 17-of-21 for 286 yards by halftime. The touchdown throws in the first half showed how versatile Boyd can be with his passing. He hit his tight end at the sideline for one score, threw a couple of slants for TDs and tossed a beautiful fade for another TD.

There also was the 61-yard TD pass, a play that likely signaled Watkins’ coming out party as well as Boyd’s comeback statement and left Clemson fans smiling again.

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