By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; D1
CLEMSON, S.C. - For 14 months, Ralph Friedgen rationalized his team's struggles by citing inexperience, injuries, bad luck, bad breaks and weather patterns that he half-jokingly said brought rain only when Maryland had the ball.
That patience vanished Saturday. After Maryland's mistake-filled 31-7 loss at Clemson, Friedgen lit into his team during an animated nine-minute news conference that followed the Terrapins' 10th consecutive road defeat. It was the most visibly frustrated Friedgen has been since Florida State routed his team late in 2008.
Instead of the breakthrough he had envisioned, Saturday brought special teams blunders, three second-half interceptions and a rash of penalties that left the 63-year-old coach steaming. He said some players are treating road games like an "amusement trip" rather than business. He said players started the second half "flat as hell" and "just kind of dead."
Friedgen repeatedly said his players did not play smart. Even with his job on the line the next six weeks, Friedgen vowed to sit banged-up players - even wide receiver Torrey Smith, his most explosive playmaker - if they don't practice by Thursday of game week. Friedgen also articulated what has become apparent at the midpoint of his 10th season in College Park: If mistakes continue, mediocrity will be the high-water mark for this team.
"We're young and I can make all the rationalizations," Friedgen said. "But it's really a matter of getting it done and not getting it done. And it's not getting done. It really isn't. I am going to start holding people's feet to the fire."
Several times during the news conference, Friedgen stared at a stat sheet that made little sense. Maryland (4-2, 1-1 ACC) held Clemson to eight pass completions and 94 rushing yards. The Terrapins outgained Clemson, 350-213, in total yards, yet found a way to lose by 24 points.
"You look at the yards, not even close," said Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown, running the folded statistical sheet through his fingers. "I've said it a hundred times, that's the most overrated stat in football - yards."
The Tigers (3-3, 1-2) entered as the more desperate team, having lost three straight this season and two straight to Maryland. Their greatest accomplishment Saturday was taking advantage of Maryland's miscues - all but three of Clemson's points can be at least partially attributed to Terrapins mistakes.
After Maryland running back Da'Rel Scott completed a four-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Danny O'Brien in the second quarter, the Terrapins earned a smidgen of momentum. Then came the ensuing kickoff. "Poor kick, poor coverage," Friedgen said. Andre Ellington returned it 87 yards for a touchdown.
"You steal some momentum and you lose momentum you stole right away," Brown said. "It was like a flash - gone so fast."
It only got worse. On the next drive, Maryland faced a key third and one from the Clemson 7. But Friedgen's biggest worry all week, Tigers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, plowed past right tackle Pete DeSouza, a redshirt freshman, and sacked O'Brien for a nine-yard loss. (Bowers had three sacks and four tackles for a loss.) Place kicker Travis Baltz then sailed a 33-yard field goal wide right.
Clemson then engineered a 13-play touchdown drive - its longest of the season - that benefited from a pass interference call on third down. And early in the third quarter, Jaron Brown, Clemson's third-string punt returner, ran a punt back 41 yards to the Maryland 21, setting up another Clemson score.
Then came a near interception by Maryland linebacker Adrian Moten, who could have walked into the end zone if he had secured the ball. "One of those days," Friedgen said. "Couldn't get a break anywhere."
The final mistakes: three fourth-quarter interceptions by O'Brien, making the first road start of his career. The redshirt freshman had played well in the first half, completing 13 of 18 passes for 159 yards, but struggled in the fourth quarter. The second interception was returned 61 yards by Xavier Brewer for a score. James Franklin, Maryland's offensive coordinator, said he could live with the first two interceptions but felt the third was an ill-advised throw.
O'Brien said playing before an announced crowd of 71,000 fans was not a factor. And if crowd noise was an issue for others, as it was during the Sept. 18 loss at West Virginia, Friedgen is no longer sympathetic.
"Crowd noise?" Friedgen said. "Yeah, there is crowd noise. We have to be able to handle crowd noise. This is not the loudest place in the world."
Maryland self-destructed Saturday. The Terrapins had 10 penalties for 93 yards. Clemson had three penalties for 30 yards. Friedgen said this was the most disheartened he's ever been after the many times he has been on the sideline in Death Valley - and that dates back to when he lost a game here as an assistant at The Citadel 37 years ago.
"To not play our best, it's frustrating, very frustrating," Friedgen said. "To make as many mistakes as we made, it's frustrating. It's not them causing the mistakes, that's what's driving me nuts. It's us causing the mistakes, things we can control. Until we learn how to do that, we will always be mediocre. At best."