CLEMSON — For anyone who wondered how quiet 75,324 folks can be, the answer came Thursday night.
Tajh Boyd went down, and you could have heard a pin drop in Death Valley.
Clemson’s all-everything quarterback, who spent much of the cold evening adding to his incredible array of season and career statistics, suffered a collarbone injury on the final play of the third quarter. Suddenly, the air went out of the balloon.
Oh, the high-flying Tigers rolled again, dismantling Georgia Tech 55-31 in Death Valley, but the question on every tongue changed in an instant. Rather than looking ahead and pondering how history will view this Clemson team, the Orange faithful wondered about the future of their ringleader.
Boyd walked off under his own power and did not return. The Tigers, comfortably in control, did not miss him on this night; Cole Stoudt filled in admirably and the points kept coming. No doubt, he could get the job done against The Citadel. But against stiffer opponents?
But the Tigers did not need to worry.
Boyd said he wanted to go back in the game and headed to the dressing room in his usual manner: smiling, greeting fans and posing for pictures.
“I’m good, I’m good,” he said on his way to the showers.
Nevertheless, the injury put a sobering note to the Tigers’ ninth win in 10 games. His injury, at least temporarily, put a damper on the red-hot performance on a cold night in what the quarterback and his senior colleagues could call their something-to-remember-us-by performance.
Sure, those who are completing their eligibility or leaving early for the pros will run down the hill one more time, Nov. 23 against The Citadel, and they have away dates against old rival South Carolina and in a bowl game. But this one against Georgia Tech would be the final opportunity to impress before the home folks against a worthy foe.
There’s no secret of the best way to slow the Tigers’ high-octane offense: ball control and a dominating defensive line performance. Do what Stanford did to Oregon a week ago, or, in a painful reminder for Clemson, emulate South Carolina’s performance on this field a year ago.
And who controls the ball better than Tech with its old-fashioned and out-of-date — and oh so effective — triple option offense? Miss a defensive assignment against, say, Robert Godhigh and a 65-yard touchdown run is the result. Indeed, the Yellow Jackets came to town ranked in the top 10 nationally in both running offense and defense.
But those assets are of little value if the Tigers’ defense mostly controls the line of scrimmage and gives Boyd and friends time to find an offensive rhythm. That happened Thursday night. Tech’s overwhelming advantage in time of possession mattered not at all.
Any hope of Tech’s matching Boston College’s effort against Clemson, persevering and taking advantage of Tigers’ miscues to lead in the final quarter, vanished quickly. Tech needed four possessions to muster a first down; the Tigers, meanwhile, scored on five of their first six opportunities.
The combination sent the Tigers winging to a 17-point halftime lead and only a rare Boyd faux pas, an ill-advised forced pass that Tech intercepted in the red zone, kept the score that respectable. Then, challenged early in the third quarter, the Tigers responded with another rapid-fire score, a defensive stop and another TD drive — this one taking all of nine seconds.
Leading 41-17 midway the third quarter and the statisticians busily updating the record book for Boyd and Sammy Watkins, the Clemson faithful could ponder what these 2013 Tigers’ legacy will be.
Well, they’re 9-1 and secure in the nation’s top 10 for another week, but how history will view this team remains to be determined. Will the Boyd-Watkins scoring machine take a place among the school’s great teams? Or will this group drop a notch into the “outstanding” category?
The answer must wait for the final games.
They are 1-1 in their truly “big” games this season — beating No. 5 Georgia before injuries decimated the Bulldogs and absorbing a 51-14 embarrassment at the hands of Florida State in another battle of nationally ranked squads with Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback.
Will Clemson break its losing streak against South Carolina? Will the bowl performance match the triumph against LSU or bring back memories of the forgettable postseason flop against West Virginia?
Then Boyd went down and, to borrow a thought from Ernest Thayer’s Casey at the Bat, a sickly silence came on the patrons of the game. The question changed from the team’s legacy to the quarterback’s health.
Happily, the prognosis is positive, but we did learn how quiet so many people can be.