CLEMSON -- Wake Forest was able to do a curious thing against Clemson last weekend -- turn the Tigers' greatest offensive strengths into weaknesses.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd has a strong arm. Receivers Sammy Watkins and Dwayne Allen have the flypaper hands and pogo-stick legs required to make incredible catches. Boyd prefers to search for those talented receivers downfield.
Knowing it could not win one-on-one battles, Wake Forest did not try to beat Boyd with pressure. The Demon Deacons tried to make Boyd beat himself. They often dropped eight defenders into coverage and rarely pressured Boyd, who had a clean jersey after the game.
The strategy nearly worked.
Boyd forced throw after throw into a crowded secondary looking for his favorite targets. He was intercepted twice in the game, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris counted "six other" potential interceptions.
The Clemson offense has stalled in the first half in each of the last two weeks as defenses have dropped extra defenders into pass coverage with Boyd locking on to targets and forcing throws downfield. It will perhaps be the blueprint to defend Clemson going forward.
Clemson travels to N.C. State, which leads the ACC with 20 interceptions, at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
"I really don't want to get into a Brett Favre Syndrome to the point where I'm trying to squeeze in everything," Boyd said. "But I do have confidence in my arm, and it can get me in trouble sometimes."
Before the season, Morris envisioned a passing game that would not have a primary receiver. Morris spoke about spreading the ball equally to perhaps six, seven or eight receivers, throwing to whoever was open.
Watkins changed those plans. The freshman has been the target of 27 percent of Boyd's passes this season, targeted a team-high 98 times. Tight end Dwayne Allen and receiver DeAndre Hopkins have each been targeted 71 times, or 19 percent of Boyd's pass attempts.
"Like any other quarterback, he knows who his playmakers are and who he wants to go to," Morris said. "You can't get locked onto a guy, and there are times he does lock on, and as a young quarterback you can't have that."
Boyd threw three interceptions in the first eight weeks of the season. He's thrown four in the last two games.
"As a young quarterback, you have to go through progressions and go through your reads and trust your reads," Morris said. "I think he's made progress, but at the same time, you've had success, you kind of feel invincible that you can make every throw."
Morris said Boyd's confidence in throwing the football has grown "two- or three-fold" this season.
"He feels he can make every throw," Morris said. "He feels like he can put a ball in a Dixie cup when they are rushing three and dropping eight, and those are things you learn as a young quarterback that you can't do. You have to take what they give you."
Georgia Tech and Wake Forest were the first defenses to have some success against the Clemson passing game since early in the season. Both the Yellow Jackets and Demon Deacons kept safeties deep, keeping the action in front of them, hoping Boyd would get impatient and greedy.
As a testament to Boyd's preference for the big play, Boyd has targeted running backs just 12 times the last three games.
But beginning in the late third quarter against Wake Forest, Boyd adjusted and completed 17 of his final 22 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He hit tight ends in the short passing game, which Boyd said "opened things up." It's the type of adjustment Morris wanted to see.
"We kind of have to dial back in and focus on going back to trusting reads … what got us to this point," Morris said. "It's just trusting your reads. It's all going to work itself out. Guys who need football are going to get it."