FSU's defense grabs spotlight

CLEMSON, S.C. -- As it turned out, the weeks-long debate over whether No. 3 Clemson fifth-year quarterback Tajh Boyd is better than No. 5 Florida State first-year quarterback Jameis Winston, proved irrelevant Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

(Pregame hype irrelevant? Say it ain't so!)

What we learned, courtesy of the Seminoles' 51-14 beatdown of the Tigers, is that Clemson fifth-year quarterback Tajh Boyd is not better than Florida State first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

With all due respect to Winston, the wonder who threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns, Florida State won this game on the other side of the ball, which Pruitt has revamped and revived in 10 short months. The Seminoles limited Boyd to 156 yards passing and forced four turnovers from a team that had only six in the first six games.

"I'm gonna tell you, the key tonight was defense," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "... Creating the turnovers, creating the opportunities. And just making those guys [Clemson] work for everything they got. [Our defense is] really grasping the whole system, and I'm extremely proud for those guys."

Pruitt is the 38-year-old, first-year defensive coordinator at Florida State, and a graduate of SDU -- Saban Defense University. Fisher, another former assistant to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, spirited Pruitt out of Tuscaloosa, where he spent three seasons and won two rings coaching the defensive backfield.

Fisher, like his former boss, doesn't allow his assistants to speak to the media. But here's what you need to know.

Under the previous defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops, Florida State played a 4-3. Pruitt switched them into Saban's 3-4. And then, three weeks ago, after Boston College scored 34 points and rushed for 200 yards, Pruitt adjusted again. He took senior middle linebacker Christian Jones and moved him to what amounts to a defensive end position. The 3-4 became a 3-3-5, with all-world corner Lamarcus Joyner playing the nickel.

"It's pretty much an NFL-type system," Jones said. "... It's a defense that gets you excited, because it allows you to have versatility."

That, Fisher said, is Jones' best trait, and a big reason that the coaches committed to the switch.

"He does a great job on the edge," Fisher said of Jones. "With all the zone read teams, you got a guy who can squeeze it, get back out, rush the passer, can drop. That's probably the most natural place for him. He can go inside and do things because he can run and cover. We just started using his versatility."

Jones finished with eight tackles and a sack against the Tigers. So did Joyner, but he also forced both of Clemson's fumbles and picked off one of Boyd's two interceptions.

"Not only do we have athletes, we have smart players," Joyner said. "When you have talent and intelligence in an aggressive scheme like this, guys being able to read it and execute, things are going to be in our favor ... I love it. I get to show my talents as a football player. I can cover, play in space. I can play deep."

The Alabama defense of the last few years has been the best in the game. The Florida State defenders enjoyed watching it, and couldn't wait to play for Pruitt.

"I was amazed at those guys," Joyner said of Alabama. "I always wanted to understand, why are those guys so good? When you want to be the best, you pay attention to the best. To be able to see those guys do that consistently, it was like, what can we do to get on their level? When Coach Pruitt came in, it was a great opportunity. Not for me, but for everyone."

All the moves have put Florida State's name on the ever-shrinking list of BCS Championship contenders. The Seminoles humiliated unbeaten Maryland 63-0 and humiliated the Tigers before 83,428 on their own field.

It would be flip to say that the Seminoles defense asserted itself on the very first play, when Joyner forced Clemson tight end Stanton Seckinger to fumble at the Florida State 34. Three plays later, Winston perfectly placed a 22-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin's back shoulder, and the Seminoles led 7-0.

Joyner forced the turnover with a good hit but Boyd did complete a 9-yard pass. From that point forward, the Florida State defense completely flummoxed the veteran quarterback. Boyd's been-there-done-that qualities seemed as if they could make a difference in the top-five showdown at Memorial Stadium. But Boyd, who came into the game 27-6 as a starter, had neither been there or done that against what Pruitt cooked up for him.

Boyd completed only 17-of-37 passes for the aforementioned 156 yards, only 4.2 yards per attempt. Clemson's longest gain of the night was 19 yards. Boyd drove the Tigers to a touchdown in the first quarter. When Clemson scored again, with :13 to play, Boyd's night had concluded long ago.

When the night began, it seemed plausible that the loser would remain in the BCS Championship discussion. When it ended, discussion of how to fit Alabama, Oregon and Florida State into two locker rooms already had begun. If defense wins championships, the Seminoles showed Saturday night they have the goods.