Jerry Claiborne anticipated the question: "Why did we go for the field goal? We felt with one down and about 20 yards our chances for a touchdown were slim, and then we'd still have to go for two points . . . We thought if we could get the three points and then the onside kick, all we'd have to do was score."

There were just under two minutes left in as fine a contest as the Atlantic Coast Conference could have hoped for as its championship game. Maryland was down seven points to a Clemson team that deserves a top-10 ranking.

The game had seen one touchdown scored on a blocked punt, another on an 87-yard pass play and another on a 98-yard run. But on the play Cloiborne and everyoe else will remember ever so long, field position was more important than three points - and Maryland should not have kicked that field goal.

One professional second-guesser reasons this way: Even if Maryland had not scored a touchdown on fourth and 17 from the 18 any positive yardage would have been better than three points.

Why?

Because Maryland would have had Clemson pushed deep enough and with enough time left to get the ball back in favorable position for the touchdown if needed to win, anyway.

Even if Maryland had gained nothing on fourth down Clemson still would have had the ball inside its 20, with a stiff wind in its face and little inclination to throw. With three timeouts left, Maryland could well have gotten the ball in better field position than any onside kick would have mustered.

As it was. Clemson recovered the onside kick that followed Ed Loncar's 35-yard field goal and controlled the ball for its 28-24 victory.

If the ending was sad and controversial for Maryland, its regular season was brighter than any but the most daffy optimist could have forecast. And anyone with a 9-2 record, loses only to the nation's No. 1 and No. 12 teams, certainly merits another bowl experience.

A bowl could have done worse than rematch these two teams, for yesterday left a high sense of anticipation with everyone in Byrd Stadium. But Maryland's fans are less inclined to travel great distances than Clemson's.

"We get people healthy again and we'll be all right," Claiborne said. "They've got a great quarterback and a great receiver - and they kind of whupped us on the line in that (70-yard) drive for their final touchdown."

So a fine season ended with a series of ifs, one of which preceded Claiborne's decision to kick that field goal. If Dean Richards had been a few inches taller, perhaps he would have completed that halfback option for the touchdown.

The receiver, Gary Ellis, was open in the end zone.

"But they read it real well," Ellis said. "I could see Dean, but I' not sure he could see me. There were three or four of them in front of him, waving their arms and all bunched together. It was hard to get a clean shot. He might be too short."

On tippy-toe or cleats, Richards might be his program height, of 5-foot-10. He agreed with Ellis.

"It seemed like as soon as I got the ball all I saw were white jerseys," he said. "I was supposed to run if I didn't see (Ellis), and as soon as I got the ball I couldn't see him.

"S I tried to run wide - and nothing was open there. So I looked to the other side, a potential receiver, quarterback Tim O'Hare, was well covered. So Richards accepted his punishment - an 11-yard loss.

In addition to the other "ifs" that bounced about Claiborne's mind was one that few others considered significant until later events proved it so.

Near the end of the third quarter, Maryland had Clemson third-and-11 from the Clemson 23, with all receivers covered well and quarterback Steve Fuller in trouble behind the line of scrimmage.

But Fuller escaped - somehow - and scrambled 13 yards for a first down. Three plays later, Fuller completed a 22-yard pass that Dwight Clark carried 40 more yards for a touchdown.

"That was about as good a pass defense (on the Fuller-to-Clark touchdown) as you can have." Claiborne said. "But the deep man broke for the ball (instead of staying with Clark).

"We didn't have enough leverage - and they made the big plays."