If Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder ever grew frustrated with his injuries or mistakes this year, offensive guard Rodney Hudson said he couldn’t tell.
“He's a team player, and he's been through some tough things,” Hudson said, “but I think he's persevered and done his best to get healthy and hold the team up.”
He’s not the only one.
Adversity and criticism are as common for quarterbacks as first downs, but both Ponder and Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor have come out on the winning end in spite of it. For Ponder, a season that began with Heisman hopes was tempered by a nagging elbow injury that sidelined him for one game and by a few uncharacteristic mistakes that have probably gotten more attention than they deserve. For Taylor, the lack of an effective passing game has haunted him until this season, when he developed into a complete player and legitimate dual-threat quarterback.
Both of them enter Saturday’s Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game leading offenses that rank among the top three in the ACC in scoring offense, both rank among the top three quarterbacks in the ACC in passing efficiency and they have each thrown 20 touchdowns.
“Well, that's two good quarterbacks, two guys that have meant a lot to their programs,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. “You know, two guys that rely heavily on the program -- the football team relies heavily on them. I think it's certainly two of the best quarterbacks in this league that's going to battle there Saturday night.”
Taylor said the biggest obstacle in his career has been the evolution of his passing game. Through his first two seasons, he threw seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Over the past two seasons, he has thrown 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The biggest technical change has been in this throwing motion and his ability to release the ball quicker.
“I think early on the passing game wasn't as good as we would like in my career,” said Taylor, the winningest quarterback in school history. “But we've set that up and built off that and gotten better in the passing game, and I think that right now we can go out there and win games, as I said. Of course, our running game that we have has opened up things for the passing game.”
In a 40-21 win over Florida State in 2007, Taylor threw three touchdown passes to lead the Hokies to their only win over the Seminoles in the past 14 meetings. This year he leads the ACC in passing efficiency, and is fourth in total offense.
“He's always been a really good quarterback,” Beamer said. “To me, this year, he's been fantastic. He's just throwing the ball with precision and he's very accurate and very much in control, very much knowing exactly what's going on the football field.”
Ponder isn’t too far behind Taylor, as he’s No. 3 in the ACC in passing efficiency despite missing a game with a ruptured bursa sac in his elbow, which continuously has had to be drained this season.
“He's bruised. He competes. He gets his butt chewed out just like everybody else and goes right on and handles everything,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think the standard he's setting not only by talking to him but by his actions, it's amazing. And that's why they have such great respect for him.”
One of the most memorable plays of the season, though, came at Ponder’s expense. In a 28-24 loss to NC State, Ponder had taken the Noles all the way to the Pack’s 4-yard line in the final minute. A comeback seemed imminent, but on the fake, Ponder extended the ball and Ty Jones bumped into it with his hip, causing a fumble.
“He recovered well because, like we said, you don't expect your own guy to run into you and fumble,” Fisher said. “Like I said, he was where he was supposed to be, and the other guy should have been wider. But he's a guy who takes the blame for it. He's the guy that takes the bullets, and that's the way he is. He doesn't ever look back. That's what makes him so special. He perseveres. He wants no excuses. That's what great leaders do. He's not afraid to take blame. I think deep down he has extreme confidence in himself.”
As he should.
Ponder has 6,866 career passing yards, fourth-best at the program. He threw three touchdown passes in a 31-7 win over rival Florida this past weekend. He was at his best against Florida on third down, completing 7 of 10 attempts for 78 yards, converting six times.
“I mean, personally, obviously I would have liked to play a little bit better,” he said. “I've been battling a lot of injuries, and it's been a little frustrating at times. For us to be going into the ACC championship game, I couldn't wish for anything better. That's kind of the reason I came to Florida State was to compete at the ACC championship level, national championship level, and for us to finally get here definitely makes those frustrations go away.”