Taylor vs. Ponder: A quarterback duel in the ACC title game
There will certainly be plenty of great battles between quarterbacks this weekend, whether it's Oklahoma's Landry Jones vs. Nebraska's Zac Lee or Taylor Martinez or Auburn's Cam Newton vs. South Carolina's Stephen Garcia. But to me, the most intriguing matchup pits Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor against Florida State's Christian Ponder.
Both were thrust into starting roles at an early age, and each has matured and grown in their own way over the course of four years in college. Taylor was just named the ACC player of the year Wednesday, and this season has thrown 20 touchdown passes and just four interception. He's also run for 613 yards and four touchdowns and was the most efficient passer in the ACC while leading his team to ten straight wins.
Ponder, meanwhile, has battled through injuries all season and even had his right elbow drained earlier this week. He actually performed fairly well when the Seminoles lost two straight games to North Carolina State and North Carolina last month, and after sitting out Florida State's 16-13 victory over Clemson, he's played perhaps his most efficient football the past two weeks.
In wins over Maryland and Florida, Ponder has completed 64 percent of his passes for 391 yards and four touchdowns. His performance against Florida, in particular, has the Hokies' coaching staff up late at night this week. Ponder finished that 31-7 rout with a 185.26 passer rating. He's also a threat to run the ball at times, having compiled 177 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
“You just see a guy who’s had a lot of snaps under his belt, playing with a lot of poise, a lot of confidence," Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said of Ponder. "To be honest with you, I know he was out a couple games, but probably our guy and him, in my opinion, are two of the better quarterbacks [in the country]."
Ponder's statistics are actually down from a year ago, and when he spoke with reporters this week, he even conceded he hasn't produced the way many thought he would when Heisman talk was thrown his way in the preseason.
But like Taylor, Ponder's worth should be judged in more than just numbers. This year he guided Florida State to its most wins since 2004, and as Coach Jimbo Fisher put it this week, "Isn't winning the ultimate measure of a quarterback?"
"I think since the N.C. State game, I've taken it upon myself to play better," Ponder said. "I was doing a lot more in practice, studying a lot more film and finally things started clicking for me. I started getting confidence and it kind of started snowballing."
The key for Virginia Tech Saturday is to keep Taylor upright. The last time the Hokies faced Florida State in 2008, Taylor was injured on the first series of the game and never returned. In fact, his replacement Sean Glennon was also knocked out by an aggressive Seminoles pass rush.
This year's Florida State pass rush has been ferocious. The Seminoles have used a talented defensive line and a whole bunch of zone blitz schemes to sack opposing quarterbacks 43 times, the most in the entire country.
You'll remember when the Hokies faced Miami's talented defensive line two weeks ago, Taylor was sacked five times and even had to leave the game for a play after a particularly heavy hit. In that win over the Hurricanes, the Hokies adjusted and began pounding the ball with their running game while wide receivers switched to three-step drop patterns like slants and bubble screens.
Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring was understandably vague about what he intends to do with the Seminoles this weekend, but one of his main focuses is keeping Taylor on the field.
"They pride themselves on hitting the quarterback," Stinespring said. "If you’ve got a good player, and we obviously have one at that spot, they want to try to rattle a player like that. I think Tyrod’s proven over time, he’s a hard guy to rattle. He’ll rattle you.”
Like teams have done for much of the second half of this season, expect Florida State's defense to make Taylor beat them with his arm. Don't think, though, Taylor hasn't studied the night Russell Wilson had against this Seminoles defense (178 yards passing, 69 yards rushing, four total touchdowns) earlier this season.
But at this point, with so much at stake, Taylor seems prepared to do just about anything to get the Hokies an 11th straight win. Really, what else would you expect with two premier quarterbacks going head-to-head?
"I challenge myself every week to be the best player on the field," Taylor said this week. "That's my mindset going into the week and when I step onto the field, I want to let it be known that I was the best player on the field in that game."
| December 2, 2010; 11:42 AM ET
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