Entering Saturday’s visit to Maryland, perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding Clemson’s program was if the Tigers would respond positively to the 51-14 whipping that Florida State laid out in the ACC’s fourth-ever meeting of Top Five teams.
A cursory glance of No. 9 Clemson’s 40-27 win over the Terrapins might suggest that mission was accomplished.
A deeper look at the game film would certainly suggest otherwise.
Against a Terrapin team missing 17 players sidelined for the season with injuries (and several more for the game), the Tigers were sluggish. They struggled in the red zone. They committed three turnovers and led only 19-13 entering the fourth quarter.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sounded very much like a man happy to avoid trips to Byrd Stadium for the foreseeable future: With the Terrapins’ impending departure to the Big Ten, this was the last scheduled game between the two teams.
Swinney said, via orangeandwhite.com:
It’s never easy up here. It never has been easy. We won’t have to come up here for a while, and I don’t know when the next time will be. It’s been a tough place for a long time. I thought they played a tough game. I thought it was going to be a four-quarter game, and it was.
All week long, Swinney and players sounded confident that they’d put the Florida State loss behind. They said they started in the locker room immediately afterward, and finished the job with Monday morning’s typical team film review.
Several players and coaches, including quarterback Tajh Boyd, dropped the post-loss cliche about “not letting one loss beat you twice.” For three quarters, it didn’t seem to sink in.
Clemson’s first four trips to Maryland’s red zone resulted in three field goals and a punt following an ill-timed Boyd intentional grounding play.
Only Boyd’s five-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Jordan Leggett with nine seconds left in the second quarter broke that hex and provided a 16-7 lead.
“We probably could have put this game away a lot earlier, if we capitalize and do a better job in the red-zone package,” Swinney said. “We’ll really have to go back and see what our issues where there. That was the biggest disappointment.”
After turning the ball over six times in the past two weeks (including four giveaways against Florida State), the Tigers were similarly generous to Maryland. Junior wideout Sammy Watkins and senior tailback Rod McDowell fumbled on consecutive possessions inside their own 25, and only strong defensive play limited the damage to a pair of Maryland field goals.
“We had mistakes and turnovers and we were very fortunate to get them back,” Swinney said. “We were plus-one in the turnover margin. Hats off to our defense. We put the ball down twice inside our own 25, and they came away with six points.”
Maryland’s first touchdown came on a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Levern Jacobs. Sophomore safety Travis Blanks appeared to be in perfect position to stop Jacobs for a 10-yard gain, but he inexplicably broke right. That opened up the middle of the field for Jacobs to sprint to the end zone.
It was the seventh play of 60-plus yards against the Clemson defense this season, and the fourth consecutive game an opponent has broken such a play.
As the fourth quarter began, Clemson appeared to be in serious trouble. The Tigers led 19-13, but Maryland had possession.
“Anytime you’re on the road, you’re kicking four field goals, but you’re driving the ball, it allows the other team to kind of stay alive,” Swinney said. “We had a chance to put them away and didn’t do it with that.”
Thirty seconds into the quarter, junior cornerback Bashaud Breeland (who missed the first half due to a mandatory suspension following his ejection from the FSU game for a targeting foul on quarterback Jameis Winston) made the biggest defensive play of the game.
He forced an Albert Reid fumble that linebacker Spencer Shuey recovered, returning it to the Terps’ 22.
Clemson did what the Terrapins couldn’t do: cash in a turnover. Boyd’s running ability was clearly limited by a first-half left knee injury that forced him into a brace, but he keyed a short 22-yard touchdown drive with a 12-yard scramble and a five-yard touchdown run for a 26-13 lead.
The Tigers had distance. And reason to exhale.
Maryland looked weary: Rod McDowell’s three-yard touchdown run finished a drive that extended the lead to 33-13 with 7:57 to play.
McDowell’s 45-yard touchdown run pushed the lead to 40-20, and he enjoyed a career-high 161 rushing yards and his first two rushing scores of the season.
Clemson rushed for 238 yards as a team, its first 200-yard rushing effort of the season.
Those numbers, however, hide cracks in the foundation.
Clemson committed three turnovers, running its total to nine in the past three games after committing four in the first five games.
Watkins caught a Clemson single-game record 14 passes for 163 yards, but once again, Boyd struggled to find a consistent second option beyond his superstar.
He completed 28 of 41 passes for 304 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but again looked unsure of himself at times in the pocket (although his knee injury could have played a factor).
Tajh, I didn’t expect anything other than for him to respond today. He got a little banged up but played through it. We needed to get him running late in the game, he was the difference for us when we had to have it in those tough situations. That’s who he is. Another great game responding from one of the few bad ones in his career.
Against a more accurate quarterback—Rowe completed 19 of 45 passes for 282 yards—the Tigers would have been in serious trouble. Maryland was also without its top two wideouts, Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, both of whom suffered broken legs last week against Wake Forest.
Starting quarterback C.J. Brown missed the game with a “trunk” injury, and the Terps’ leading rusher, tailback Brandon Ross, missed the game with a shoulder injury.
Three weeks ago, Florida State waxed a far healthier Terrapin team, 63-0, in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles kept rolling Saturday, whipping N.C. State 42-17. With each FSU win, Clemson’s hopes of an ACC title dim. Now, the Seminoles must lose twice to the trio of No. 7 Miami, Wake Forest and Syracuse, and the Tigers must beat Virginia and Georgia Tech for the Tigers to represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC title game.
Clemson’s only realistic hope of building on 2012’s 11-2 season is with an at-large BCS bid. The Tigers could qualify as an 11-1 team; they’ll be favored against Virginia, Georgia Tech and The Citadel.
The regular-season finale at archrival South Carolina, which has beaten the Tigers four consecutive times, looks like a major hurdle unless Clemson can solve its turnover troubles and find a true second receiving option behind Watkins.
With four regular-season games left, Swinney’s bunch has plenty of work left to do.
Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace.