CLEMSON, S.C. – This was supposed to be his night.
All of the preseason accolades. The interviews and fawning national features.
The Heisman Trophy candidacy.
All of it was building toward a night like Saturday night, with the national spotlight squarely focused on Tajh Boyd, Memorial Stadium and a top-five matchup against Florida State.
This was supposed to be his night to shine, to take a huge step toward an invitation to Manhattan's Downtown Athletic Club for Dec. 14’s Heisman ceremony. It was anything but that.
Boyd completed just 17 of 37 passes for 157 yards with a touchdown, two interceptions and a fumble returned 37 yards for a game-changing touchdown.
It was the second-lowest yardage total of Boyd’s career behind an 83-yard effort at South Carolina on Nov. 26, 2011. His Heisman hopes are, at best, on life support.
“I just didn’t perform the way I was capable of performing,” Boyd said. “It’s my job to be a leader, my job to go out and perform at a high level, and I just didn’t do that tonight. There were some throws that I wish I could have had back but you’ve just got to keep working.”
Now, Boyd and Clemson must deal with drastically changed realities over the final five regular-season games.
Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) must win its final three league games and hope the Seminoles (6-0, 4-0) stumble twice over their final four ACC games to have any shot at representing the Atlantic Division in Charlotte at the ACC Championship. Now, the Tigers are likely reduced to competing for an at-large Bowl Championship Series berth or a repeat trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Boyd must deal with the fact that he is the ACC’s second-best quarterback behind Florida State redshirt freshman Jameis Winston.
Winston picked apart Clemson’s defense in a virtuoso performance, completing 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. As a result, he vaulted himself firmly into Heisman contention alongside the likes of Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
“He performed at a high level tonight,” Boyd said of Winston. “He was very comfortable when he stepped out on that field. He came in and played at a high level.”
Boyd’s effort was one of the worst of his career, and at the worst possible time.
His throws were high, low, scattershot. All over the place.
He didn’t protect the ball well. Down 10-0, Boyd dug his team a hole it would never get out of, losing a fumble while being sacked on a slot blitz. FSU defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. scooped it up and rolled 37 yards for a touchdown and shocking 17-0 lead. “A miscommunication of a play,” Boyd said. “We called one thing, everyone went the right way. I thought it was something else, went the other way and tried to throw the ball away. It slipped out of my hand.”
Clemson broke Florida State’s side of the field three times in the second quarter and came away with no points: Boyd called the resulting turn of momentum “West Virginia-esque,” referring to the Tigers’ embarrassing 70-33 loss in the 2012 Orange Bowl.
“The game didn’t swing the way we wanted,” Boyd said. “There was a slippery slope effect, almost. We came back and felt like we could respond. We went and got a score (that cut the lead to 17-7) and then didn’t convert. We had some opportunities and missed them. We’ve got to learn from it.”
It is a bitterly disappointing comedown for a program that spent this week basking in the national spotlight.
“This was a huge missed opportunity for our team,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Following 2012’s 11-2 record, the onus was to improve and take the next step towards a BCS national title berth. Sunday morning brings the bitter realization that the Tigers are the second-best team in their own division, and right now, it isn’t close.
Saturday night, Clemson was outclassed across the board. At wide receiver. At cornerback. On both lines of scrimmage. The Tigers were the overwhelming preseason favorite to win their second ACC title in three years, but they’ll spend the second half of the season needing Florida State to falter for any hope of that happening.
Late Saturday night, Boyd, the Tigers’ unquestioned leader, was taking a positive look forward.
Boyd: "As good as we are, we didn’t do things to compete on that field. We didn’t play the type of caliber that we’re capable of."— Greg Wallace (@gc_wallace) October 20, 2013
“Especially for me being a leader of this team, we do have a lot to play for,” he said. “The national title implications are kind of out of the door. We’ll see what happened, six top-10 teams lost today? We’ll see. It was disappointing for us. We can’t do anything about it anymore but we’ve got to take it and learn from it.”
Given the stage and the national implications, it was a bitter lesson for Boyd and his team to absorb.
*Unless noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace