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QBs Taylor, Ponder end rivarly in ACC title game

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The final chapter of the Christian Ponder-Tyrod Taylor rivalry will be written Saturday -- and the winner will walk with the ACC title.

The two-signal callers will me in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte, N.C., culminating a rivalry that began on a chilly November afternoon three years ago.

Both athletes have improved since that first meeting in Blacksburg, Va. Florida State Ponder was a heavy preseason favorite for ACC Player of the Year; Virginia Tech's Taylor who won the award Wednesday. Taylor led the 12th-ranked Hokies to the first unbeaten ACC season any team has had in league play since Florida State did it in 2000.

"If you're gonna win 10 in a row, you're gonna have to have a quarterback and he's just been fantastic," said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer. "He's worked at being what he is."

So has Ponder.

He arrived at Florida State as a "legacy" recruit, the son of one of ex-coach Bobby Bowden's former linemen, David Ponder. A top-flight student who's working on a second graduate degree, Ponder was lightly recruited out of high school. He was largely ignored until Jimbo Fisher showed up as offensive coordinator in 2007 and noticed the lanky Texan doing things in practice other Seminole quarterbacks couldn't.

"You could just see things in him," said Fisher, now Florida State's head coach. "His ability to process information is huge."

"He's everything you want in your quarterback," Fisher said. "Arm talent, can run if necessary and tough. If your quarterback is tough, your whole team is tough."

Ponder, who was being hyped by Florida State as a Heisman Trophy possibility at the beginning of the season, was steady but unspectacular while guiding the young Seminoles into the league's title game for the first time in five years. He didn't put up some some of the eye-popping statistics he had in his junior year before being sidelined in the ninth game with a shoulder injury.

Ponder also began this season without three of his best receivers from last year. Then he was hit with a rash of injuries, including one to his throwing arm in early October. Doctors drained fluid from his arm after nearly every game.

Taylor, though, was spectacular, leading the league in passing efficiency and amassing more total yardage than Ponder and on fewer plays. Taylor led the Hokies (10-2) to 10 straight victories after September losses to Boise State and James Madison within five days of each other. Taylor's 33-7 record as a starter is the most wins of any Tech quarterback, including Michael Vick who finished his Hokie career with an astonishing 21-1 mark.

Ponder and Taylor have split the two regular season games played against each other.

Ponder's 21-12 record during some contentious times at Florida State as Bowden's coaching career wound down, has him in a fourth place tie with Danny Kannell and Thad Busby in the number of victories although those two lost only five times between them.

Both quarterbacks will finish in the ACC's top 20 in total offense and top 25 passing.

Taylor, 21, was the MVP of the 2008 ACC championship when the Hokies defeated Boston College. He led the ACC in passing efficiency and had 20 TDs and just four picks and goes into Saturday's title game without an interception in his last 65 passes.

"When I step onto the field, I want to let it be known that I was the best player on the field," Taylor said.

Taylor has always been a dangerous runner, finishing this season as Tech's second leading rusher with 613 yards, including two of more than 70 yards.

"We know Tyrod will be a handful," Fisher said. "He's become a complete quarterback and those legs make him special."

Florida State middle linebacker Kendall Smith hopes that Florida State's game at North Carolina State in late October and their elusive quarterback, Russell Wilson, gives an idea of what they'll be up against with Taylor.

"He's definitely a great dual quarterback, and he definitely gives teams problems with his legs," Smith said. "By us already having that experience early in the season, we can game plan around playing Tyrod and try to keep him in the box."

Wilson, who led the Wolfpack's 28-24 win over Florida State, finished second to Taylor in the ACC Player of the Year voting. But Wilson, thanks to Maryland's upset of the Wolfpack last weekend, will be watching Ponder and Taylor dueling it out.

"The thing about a quarterback, it's where you finish as at the end of your career," Fisher observed.

"We're both finishing strong," Ponder said. "I'm here to win."

And so is Taylor in what should be a fitting way to end the rivalry.