When his mechanics failed him, effort and chutzpah — with an assist from the defense — helped Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd avoid the landmines in the Virginia Tech game last week.
After Boyd’s slow meltdown a year ago beginning at about the same point of the season, are similar issues surfacing, or is something else wrong?
Dabo Swinney conceded that it was the worst performance of the season by Clemson’s offense, but became prickly when asked about Boyd’s health and his state of mind.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with him,” the Clemson coach said. “There’s no conspiracy. He just made some bad plays.”
Clemson, ranked 13th in the AP poll and rated 18th by the BCS, plays tonight at Wake Forest and, historically, Clemson has been bad in Thursday night ESPN games — 1-9 since 1998. That includes a stunning 12-7 loss at Grove Stadium in 2008 that led to Tommy Bowden’s resignation the following Monday, and Swinney being appointed interim coach.
One of the traits of a Bowden team was its irregular heartbeat — lose to Wake Forest one week then beat third-ranked Florida State the next (2003), win an overtime game at Miami then lose at Duke (2004), win seven of eight to open a season then lose four of the last five (2006).
In an offense that requires an accurate triggerman, it can’t afford many more games like Boyd’s against Virginia Tech in which he missed receivers high and wide.
“I feel like mechanically I wasn’t as sound as I needed to be,” Boyd said. “A couple of those throws, any of those throws I missed, I feel like I can make in my sleep.
“It’s tough, man, because you want to go out there and complete every pass.”
Boyd has admitted to becoming transfixed by the hype a year ago when 8-0 Clemson climbed to No. 9 in the polls and he was mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He reshaped his body during the offseason to become stronger and quicker. The difference has been evident, particularly against Virginia Tech when he rushed 20 times and scored two touchdowns.
“I think his head was perfect,” Swinney said. “You don’t have to explain all the mechanics. Sometimes you just screw up. Sometimes you just make a bad play.
“It’s not anything else. Sometimes when you play at such a high level, you do so many things that then you show a little weakness or you show some human tendencies, hey, the guy isn’t perfect. Then it’s ‘What’s wrong with him?’ ”
So if Boyd’s head is right, might there be something wrong physically?
Boyd said he didn’t throw at Sunday’s practice and that the muscles “surrounding” his right shoulder had been sore, “but it’s fine overall.”
Swinney must bite his lip at times when Boyd talks.
“I think sometimes Tajh thinks he’s got to explain everything instead of, ‘You know, that was just a bad play,’ ” Swinney said. “He’s very hard on himself. This year, he’s done a much better job of that, and just managing the game and finding ways to lead his team down the field.”
Clemson’s recent track record on these things isn’t pristine. Two years ago, quarterback Kyle Parker sustained a broken rib when he was hammered in the Auburn game and played through the pain despite assertions there was nothing seriously wrong.
“There’s no conspiracy,” Swinney said. “He just had a bad game. There’s no other way to explain it other than he didn’t use his fundamentals and mechanics properly on a few of those throws.”
Not that he was miserable. In the second half, Boyd hit Sammy Watkins on a pass to set up a touchdown and DeAndre Hopkins for a 37-yard score. When his arm wasn’t at its best, Boyd used his feet.
“It’s all about do you lead your team to victory,” Swinney said. “Yes, he did, and he did it in a gutsy way, and with his legs.”