Late Saturday afternoon, Tajh Boyd finally looked like a guy having fun.
Midway through the third quarter at Virginia, Clemson’s standout senior quarterback had traded his helmet for a baseball cap, headset and a smile.
And why not? No. 8 Clemson held a 35-point lead. His day was over. In front of family, friends and admirers who’d made the two-hour drive to Charlottesville from his hometown of Hampton, he put together a virtuoso performance: 377 yards, three touchdowns and an interception while completing 24 of 29 passes.
It was his best performance since Oct. 5’s 455-yard, five-touchdown, two-interception effort at Syracuse. Saturday, he had a pass efficiency of 219, the highest since rolling up a 261.9 at Syracuse.
Around him, the Tigers’ offense thrived in a 59-10 rout of the overmatched Cavaliers (2-7, 0-5 ACC). Clemson (8-1, 6-1 ACC) scored its highest point total of the season and most in an opponent’s stadium since taking a 63-17 win at South Carolina in 2003.
It was the beginning of what Clemson coach Dabo Swinney hopes is a “November to remember.” And that’s better than what was, at times, a forgettable October for Boyd.
He fell out of the Heisman Trophy race following a 51-14 loss to Florida State which saw him complete 17 of 37 passes for 156 yards, the second-lowest yardage performance of his collegiate career.
And while he bounced back with a 304-yard effort last week at Maryland, the Tigers’ offense was uneven: Clemson led only 16-7 at halftime after garnering only three field goals on its first four red-zone possessions.
This week, reporters asked Boyd and Swinney if Boyd was having fun.
“For me, the whole thing is about trying to enjoy it fully,” Boyd responded. “I play for the joy of the game. Enjoy, relax, try to have fun.”
Saturday? Saturday was fun. Since the Syracuse game, Boyd had thrown three passing touchdowns and committed four turnovers. While he threw an interception into double-coverage going for Sammy Watkins, Boyd’s day was otherwise clean.
And in four trips into the red zone with Clemson’s offense, Boyd led four drives that ended in touchdowns.
He appeared surer of himself. Happier.
“That’s been a big question of late,” he told orangeandwhite.com. "That’s the thing. Every time I get a chance to hang with these guys, be on the field with these guys, talk to them, it’s one less game that we’re going to have. It’s important to go out and enjoy all of these moments.”
With Clemson leading 14-7 midway through the second quarter, the game changed following a pair of Jayron Kearse-induced turnovers—an interception and a forced fumble. Clemson turned both into touchdowns for breathing room and a 28-7 lead.
Boyd’s final drive of the first half was one of his best of the season. Poor clock management by Virginia coach Mike London (three passes that chewed up only 34 seconds) gave Clemson the ball at its own 14 with 55 seconds left. Working the sidelines and middle of the field, Boyd completed all six throws on the drive—to five different receivers—for 84 yards, finishing the drive with a one-yard touchdown run and 13 seconds to spare.
“It was probably our best drive of the year,” Boyd said. “Just because we’re out there playing, not really thinking. Coach put us in a position to make plays and it’s good. We were in a good pace at that moment. At the end of the day, you’ve got to let it hang out there.”
And Boyd and Sammy Watkins’ final offensive play of the game was a doozy.
Facing a 3rd-and-15 at his own 4-yard line midway through the third quarter, Boyd just unloaded with Watkins in coverage against freshman cornerback Tim Harris, a frequent target.
Watkins got behind Harris in coverage at the 40, took three steps and was gone. It was a 96-yard touchdown, the second-longest offensive play from scrimmage in program history. The only one longer? A 97-yard pass play from Mark Fellers to Craig Brantley against Virginia in 1974.
It was the second connection of 90-plus yards for Boyd and Watkins this season; they hooked up on a 91-yard touchdown at Syracuse. Entering the day, there had been only 12 plays of 90-plus yards in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We had great personnel,” Boyd said. “When you get a guy like (Watkins) out there in space, you have the opportunity. The safety did something different than I thought, and I ran it on the outside. When Sammy and Martavis (Bryant) are out there, you can underthrow them. You’ve got to throw your arm out there and they’re going to get it.”
Saturday, Boyd became the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown responsibility with 116, passing N.C. State’s Philip Rivers (who had 112). He is now two touchdown passes behind Rivers for the league’s all-time lead with 95, and with three more 300-yard games, he can pass him for most 300-yard games by an ACC quarterback (Rivers had 18).
Boyd says he wants to peak in November, and he certainly has plenty to play for. With wins over Georgia Tech, The Citadel and South Carolina, he can give the Tigers a major boost towards their second Bowl Championship Series berth in three seasons.
To do so, he’ll have to beat the Gamecocks.
In two starts against South Carolina, he has struggled, completing 11-of-29 passes for 83 yards, a touchdown and an interception in 2011 and 11-of-24 for 183 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions last November.
He won’t be able to get back the poor performance against Florida State which will likely cost the Tigers a shot at the ACC and BCS titles.
But games like Saturday, games where he and the Tigers’ offense have fun, are a good start.
Repeat that for the rest of November, and a good bit of Clemson’s sour October can be forgotten.
“We put ourselves in situations where we can hold back a little bit,” Boyd said. “We have three games left. We have to let it all loose.”
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.