CLEMSON, S.C. — It's tough to get your first serious action at quarterback when everybody's watching — just ask Clemson's Tajh Boyd and South Carolina's Connor Shaw.
The two sophomores, who each entered the season with plenty of doubters after spotty early showings, square off Saturday night as first-time starters in the Palmetto State's biggest sports rivalry when No. 18 Clemson (9-2) travels to No. 14 South Carolina (9-2).
Boyd was thrust into this game a year ago with the Tigers trailing and starter Kyle Parker ineffective, and he was rattled around on the state's biggest stage. He was sacked three times in Clemson's 29-7 loss, the worst hit coming in the fourth quarter when cracked by Gamecocks defensive end Cliff Matthews on fourth down.
"Everybody remembers the hit. You wake up, look in the paper and my helmet's over there and the ball's over there," said Boyd, pointing in opposite directions.
Shaw showed up on the radar a year ago, too, entering South Carolina's 35-27 loss at Auburn in the final quarter and throwing two interceptions down the stretch to choke off the Gamecocks' rally. He spent most of the rest of the season on the sideline as starter Stephen Garcia led South Carolina to wins over Alabama, Tennessee and Florida — and the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Shaw was bailed out by Garcia in this year's opener, the fifth-year senior rallying South Carolina to a 56-37 win over East Carolina after the Pirates took a 24-0 lead with Shaw as the starter.
"He's coming around," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "He's coming around."
Boyd was a friendly, happy-go-lucky reserve as a redshirt freshman, knowing he likely wouldn't see much time with Parker back from a stellar 2009. Boyd acknowledged he didn't take a strong approach to improving last year and when he got his chance, he says he was not ready.
When Parker gave up football after his sophomore season for the Colorado Rockies, Boyd knew he had to take advantage. He worked with first-year coordinator Chad Morris to learn the new offensive system and ran pass drills with teammates during voluntary summer workouts.
Boyd came back a better player and leader.
"Even as a freshman, he was never a clown," Clemson right tackle Landon Walker said. "But you don't take things as serious when you aren't the guy."
Boyd quickly became the guy, throwing 24 touchdowns and three interceptions during Clemson's 8-0 start. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Boyd was discussed as a Heisman Trophy contender and continually out-gunned overmatched defenses in Morris' quick-paced, non-stop offense.
Things have not gone as smoothly the past three games. Boyd's tripled his interception total with six in contests with Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina State. Not surprisingly, the Tigers lost two of three and enter this week's rivalry game looking to regain their offensive mojo.
Tight end Dwayne Allen said Boyd's confidence took a hit, but he's ready to respond.
"Some of the mistakes he's making are boneheaded mistakes and he understands how to correct them," Allen said.
Boyd said the players and coaches had in-depth discussions about cutting down on mistakes and getting back to the way things were earlier this season.
"I think everything's coming together," he said.
The same could be said of Shaw, the 6-foot-1 brother of former Georgia Tech passer Jaybo Shaw who figured to spend another season as Garcia's backup, even after Spurrier picked Shaw to start the season opener.
But Shaw was jittery and off-target in his first-quarter stint and Garcia's apparently steady hand led the Gamecocks to their most points in a game this season.
Shaw got another chance last month after Garcia's awful showing in a 16-13 home loss to Auburn, a defeat that cost the Gamecocks a return trip to the Georgia Dome as Eastern Division champs.
Shaw played throughout a 54-3 win over Kentucky, passing for 311 yards and four touchdowns in the romp. Three days later, Shaw earned the job for keeps when Garcia was dismissed. The sophomore has emerged as one of the biggest threats of Spurrier's revamped attack, which relies on a solid ground game and just enough passing to keep teams honest.
Shaw rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns to beat Florida 17-12 two weeks ago then had a 60-yard TD run in a 41-20 victory over The Citadel last Saturday.
Shaw has brought a no-nonsense, hard-working approach to practice and games, one he learned from his brother and father, also his high school coach.
"We always root for each other and help out whenever we can with each other," Connor Shaw said.
Spurrier said Shaw outplayed Garcia during summer practice, which is why the sophomore got the call over the returning senior. Shaw has grown more comfortable in the zone-read schemes the Gamecocks have used to keep winning despite the losses of Garcia and injured star tailback Marcus Lattimore.
"The kid, he's been around winning teams and he knows how to play like a winner," Spurrier said.
AP writer Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.