CLEMSON -- Tajh Boyd saw ghosts Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium.
After Boyd took so many hits against South Carolina, after his jersey changed from white to green a week earlier at N.C. State, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said his quarterback began to even feel pressure that wasn't there versus the Gamecocks, what analysts call phantom pressure.
The quarterback who earlier in the season was adept at keeping his eyes downfield and delivering strikes to receivers, instead let his focus drift away from receiving targets and to oncoming defenders Saturday night.
The regression is a concern for Clemson, which is a quarterback-centric team. At Clemson, there is no elite defense to be counted on like at Alabama, Louisiana State or South Carolina. There is not a consistent running game. So much depends upon Boyd. No. 21 Clemson's early successes and recent failures correlate to Boyd's statistical performances. Morris knows to get his offense back to an elite level at 8 p.m. Saturday in the ACC title game, he needs to fix his quarterback -- mentally and mechanically.
"I think what you are seeing is Tajh being hurried, being hit, and then you are seeing him hurry throws when there is good protection," Morris said. "He was hit quite a bit, and some of it was on him; when there was good protection, he was jumpy. He was trying to get out of the pocket. He is feeling
pressure when there was no pressure. We have to do a better job of protecting the quarterback."
Morris prides himself as something of a quarterback whisperer.
He doubles as the team's quarterbacks coach. He's a self-proclaimed "technique freak" regarding footwork and passing mechanics, but also talks of being a sideline psychologist.
"I think over the last couple weeks I've tried to keep his confidence high and understand, 'Hey, it's all going to work itself out,' " Morris said.
Morris said observers must remember Boyd is still a first-year starting quarterback who is experiencing highs and lows for the first time, a sophomore facing a variety of defensive schemes for the first time, including the nightmare scenario at USC: an athletic defense able to bring consistent pressure with its front four while dropping seven into coverage.
Since the Georgia Tech game, teams have begun to drop more defenders into coverage against Boyd, rather than blitz, which has kept the ball in Boyd's hand longer.
"(Early in the season) he kept his eyes downfield and made plays, but I think what we are all seeing is was what we thought we would see early in the year," Morris said. "He's going through growing pains as all quarterbacks do. It's easy to say 'he's done,' that's the easy thing to do. We don't do the easy thing. We are going to dig in."
Why is Boyd struggling now instead of September?
Boyd said he's never absorbed so many collisions, dating back to his prep career. Clemson allowed 18 sacks in the first 10 games, but 11 sacks in the last two games. Boyd threw 24 touchdown passes against three interceptions the first eight games of the season, versus four touchdowns and seven interceptions the last four games.
Boyd will likely face more pressure at Bank of America Stadium. Bud Foster's Virginia Tech defense is eighth nationally in sacks (3.1 per game) and 12th in total defense.
Morris said the ability to hang in the pocket in the face of pressure is part innate, part learned.
Morris said Boyd goes through drills to simulate pressure in practice, but can Boyd stand tall in the pocket as he faces another stout defense?
"There's only one way to find out and that is to just play," Boyd said. "I can help those (the line) a little bit, too, stepping up in (the pocket). ... They trust me, so I have to do the same with them."
If Morris restores Boyd's confidence, it will not be the first time.
In the season opener against Troy, Boyd played with little confidence early in the game. Boyd completed just 4 of his first 10 passes, and Clemson trailed Troy at halftime, 16-13.
Morris adjusted by calling a quick passing game to open the second half to get his quarterback in rhythm, and Boyd responded, completing 11 of his first 13 passes, leading two touchdown drives.
Morris said he will try to some different things with Boyd, which might include more reliance on the quick passing game.
Can Morris and Boyd get it turned around again?
"We're going to find out," Morris said, "we're going to find out quickly."