When it was over, when one of the most enchanting games ever played in Byrd Stadium was done, the Maryland players sat teary-eyed and wondered how many times they could give away one football game.
The Terrapins committed five turnovers in the second half yesterday, two coming in the final three minutes, and fell to Clemson, 24-22, in an emotionally charged game that likely will decide the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
Before 51,750 fans, the fourth-largest crowd ever at Byrd Stadium, the 11th-ranked Tigers, defending national champions, captured their seventh straight victory and all but wrapped up a second straight ACC championship. Clemson (7-1-1, 5-0 in the ACC) finishes its season in two weeks against Wake Forest after a nonconference game against South Carolina.
For 18th-ranked Maryland, it was a frustrating way to end a seven-game winning streak. The Terrapins, who had some hopes of playing in a bowl game on New Year's Day before yesterday's loss, are 7-3 overall and 4-1 in the ACC. They finish the regular season Saturday at Virginia and will play in a bowl game, possibly the Aloha or Tangerine, in December.
The windy, cold day held brighter hopes for Maryland, right up through the last few minutes, until a fumble by tight end John Tice, who had caught 11 passes, with 3:48 left and a interception thrown by quarterback Boomer Esiason with 25 seconds left.
"This game," said Maryland Coach Bobby Ross, "can be summed up in one word: turnovers. They stifled us when we had some opportunities to win it. We had a legitimate chance to win, and we let it get away." Clemson had no turnovers for the game.
"We made so many stupid mistakes," said Esiason. "Clemson didn't win it, we lost it. We played under our potential and still nearly won the game."
The Terrapins began the fourth quarter trailing, 24-7, their largest deficit of the season. But a 37-yard touchdown pass from Esiason to Greg Hill and a one-yard touchdown run by fullback Rick Badanjek pulled Maryland within 24-22 with 5:55 to play.
Maryland's defense held and a three-yard punt against the wind by Clemson's Dale Hatcher gave the Terrapins the ball at the Tigers' 21 with four minutes to play. Byrd Stadium was roaring in anticipation: If the Terrapins could just hold onto the ball until fourth down, sure-footed Jess Atkinson would have the 25-mph wind behind him on a 36-yard field goal try.
But on first down, Badanjek ran for one yard; on second down the Terrapins lost 10 yards for holding; then from the 30, Esiason threw a quick-out pass to Tice, who caught his school-record 11th pass of the day.
Tice turned the left corner, but all-America safety Terry Kinard knocked the ball from his grasp and Tiger cornerback Reggie Pleasant recovered at the 24. Nobody associated with Maryland football could remember if Tice had ever fumbled in his four years here.
Still, Maryland got one more chance to win when the defense forced Clemson to punt and the Terrapins took over at their own 40 with 45 seconds to play.
On first down, Esiason hit Hill, 20 yards downfield, in the chest with a perfect spiral, but Hill dropped it. "I took my eye off the ball," Hill said. "I thought I had it. But I turned around and here it is, lying on the ground. Jeez."
On second down, Esiason sailed a pass off Mike Lewis' fingertips, with 32 seconds left.
And on third down, Esiason tried to lob a pass between the Clemson linebackers and defensive backs to wide receiver Darryl Emerson. The pass came nowhere near Emerson and was intercepted by safety Billy Davis at the Clemson 38 with 25 seconds remaining. No more chances for Maryland.
"I thought I could just dip it in there," Esiason said. "But I put too much on it. It just kept going."
Clemson held a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter after a five-yard touchdown run by tailback Cliff Austin climaxed a 65-yard, 16-play drive and a one-yard run by tailback Chuck McSwain followed a short Maryland punt.
Maryland pulled to within 14-7 midway through the second quarter on a one-yard, fourth-down touchdown run by Badanjek, who slipped away from two Clemson tacklers at the line of scrimmage.
Another Maryland scoring drive was thwarted when Esiason threw an interception to Pleasant at the one-yard line in the third period with Clemson ahead, 14-7. Maryland got the ball back at midfield shortly thereafter. But Willie Joyner fumbled on first down.
Clemson didn't score on that possession, but took advantage of a 24-yard punt into the wind by Alan Sadler and went ahead, 21-7, on a one-yard plunge by fullback Kevin Mack with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Clemson's Bob Paulling added a 16-yard field goal early in the fourth for a 24-7 lead. Maryland fullback Dave D'Addio had fumbled after catching a screen pass and, after a drive to within a half-yard of the goal, Clemson Coach Danny Ford opted for the sure three points.
The Terrapins moved 79 yards on their next possession to cut Clemson's lead to 24-13, then added a two-point conversion run by Badanjek for a 24-15 deficit with 9:49 left. Badanjek's second touchdown was the game's final score.
After the first few minutes, the Maryland pass blocking was superb. Center Vince Tomasetti won his private match with Clemson's 310-pound William Perry, "The Refrigerator." The Terrapins, however, rushed for only 63 yards. Joyner led both teams with 60 yards rushing on 15 carries.
Clemson quarterbacks Mike Eppley and Homer Jordan shared duties, with Eppley playing most of the game. But the Clemson coaches said Jordan, the better passer, would have come in if Maryland had taken the lead.
For Clemson, it was a sweet ending to a week that included stories in The Washington Post that had the Tigers being placed on probation by the NCAA and ACC for recruiting violations.
"I just told the youngsters to keep everything in the back of their minds and go out and perform," Ford said afterward. "I suppose they do read the papers. But that's why they're a great club. They just don't let things bother them and get to them."