CLEMSON – The war of words is soon to end, before the battle for flying footballs will settle the score.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins and Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner got the party started through the media in July.
All-Americans on the field and in front of microphones, Watkins and Joyner relish their personal showdown as part of No. 5 Florida State (5-0, 3-0) and No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 4-0) facing off Saturday night for ACC supremacy.
“I’ve been looking forward to him. He’s a great defender,” Watkins said. “They’re going to be doing a lot of heavy press, and I’m prepared for that. I just can’t wait to play Saturday, to show him I can get off the press and be physical with him also.”
Probably the most fascinating Xs-and-Os matchup Saturday involves the trio of high-flying Clemson junior receivers — Watkins, Adam Humphries and Martavis Bryant, combining for 77 catches, 1,217 yards and 9 TDs through six games — against Joyner and the FSU secondary, boasting the No. 2-rated pass defense in the country (149 yards per game.)
“Anybody can be pressed. Sammy Watkins is a man,” Joyner said at ACC Media Days on July 21. “Yes, he can be pressed. He can be pressed a lot sometimes. I mean, he’s a man. That’s how I feel about that.”
Whereas the Tigers have been allowed room to roam against the zone looks and cover 2 defenses of other ACC foes — respecting the speedy downfield threats of quarterback Tajh Boyd’s prime targets — the Seminoles favor man defenses, looking to shake, rattle and roll receivers away from their routes on the line of scrimmage.
“Florida State is about the only one,” Watkins said, asked how many press defenses he’s seen in three years at Clemson.
“That’s the hard part, transitioning to a press team. You change some of the things you do, and that’s what I’ve got to do this week.”
If this is the last go-around for Watkins, who may declare for the NFL Draft after the season, it’s the rubber match for him individually against Florida State.
The Fort Myers, Fla., native went off for seven catches, 141 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s 35-30 home victory over FSU on Sept. 24, 2011, a highlight of his monstrous freshman campaign.
Then last year, after coming back from suspension in the first two games of 2012, Watkins was snuffed out for 24 yards on six catches in the Seminoles’ 49-37 victory.
“Sammy, being a Florida boy, he knows half the guys on that defense. So he wants to go out there for bragging rights and ball on ‘em,” Humphries said. “Sammy’s definitely always had a bigger edge for going against FSU.”
Joyner pointed to former FSU cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ work on Watkins last year, and since new Seminoles defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is even more aggressive than predecessor Mark Stoops, Joyner proclaimed “we’ve got more guys that can press like Xavier Rhodes.”
“I know (last year) still resonates with him,” Boyd said. “Sammy feels like he’s the best receiver in the country, and I feel that as well. At the end of the day you’ve just got to go out there and perform, and prove it.”
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said of the 2012 FSU loss: “Last year they physically whipped us at wide receiver … they embarrassed us.” He challenged the Tigers to not let it happen again.
“I thought our wide receivers spent more time on the ground last year than the ball did, and it has to start on the ground every play,” Morris said. “So that’s something we’re stressing to our guys: we got out-physicaled last year.”
Of course, the Jameis Winston-Vic Beasley matchup, the special teams stars, and the Death Valley crowd are other gameday factors.
But as Watkins sees it, the responsibility falls squarely on him and his mates.
“I think this game really is on the receivers, because Tajh is going to have enough time to throw the ball,” Watkins said. “Their defensive line is pretty good, but they don’t have those guys like Vic Beasley. We’ve really got to accept the challenge and go out there and have fun and make plays.
“It’s really the wide receivers against their secondary.”