It was not as if the Clemson Tigers had not faced pressure before. During the last two seasons they have played in at least a half-dozen "big" games. What's more, they have been subjected to nonstop speculation during that time about their impending NCAA probation.
But yesterday afternoon, when the defense took the field at Byrd Stadium with 4:48 remaining and at least 45,000 of the 51,750 people in the stands on their feet screaming, the Tigers felt a bit shaken.
"They certainly had the momentum," said safety Reggie Pleasant. "And after that punt, it looked like they were going to keep it. All we could do at that point was hope and pray."
Eight minutes of playing time earlier, the Tigers had not expected to need any help from above. Bob Paulling had just kicked a 16-yard field goal for a 24-7 lead and it looked as if the cool, windy afternoon would be an easy one for the defending national champions.
But, as they have done all season, the Maryland Terrapins came back. "Ahead 17 points in the fourth quarter I thought we were in real good shape," Clemson Coach Danny Ford said. "Then I looked up with 5:55 to go and all I saw was red shakers and people hollerin'. Maryland wouldn't give up."
The inspired Terrapins had cut the margin to 24-22 with 5:55 left and, after the defense held Clemson again, Dale Hatcher's punt got caught in a wind gust and traveled a net total of three yards, landing on the Clemson 21 with 4:48 left.
At that moment, the Tigers seemed reduced to hoping and praying.
"We had to blitz," all-America Terry Kinard said. "Our only hope was to try to push them back out of field goal range. That, or a big play." Kinard smiled. "Fortunately, we got the big play."
It came on second and 18 from the 30, the Terrapins pushed back by a holding call. Quarterback Boomer Esiason threw a short pass into the left flat to tight end John Tice, as sure-handed a receiver as ever has played at Maryland.
Tice made the catch at the 26 with Kinard coming up from behind. "We were in straight man-to-man and I thought they would go to him," Kinard said. "Why not? I mean the guy holds everything. I just tried to wrap him up and I came down with my hands on top of the ball. Then, I saw it pop free.
"I was surprised, real surprised."
So was Pleasant, who, after seeing the pass was "roll-calling," rolling toward the ball as soon as it was thrown by the quarterback. Then he saw the ball on the ground.
"I was heading that way in case the man broke free from the tackle," he said. "It came loose near the sidelines and I was afraid it would go out of bounds. I was lucky I got to it in time."
Was Kinard trying to strip Tice of the ball? "I was trying to tackle him."
"Strip him of the ball?" Ford asked. "That's blackboard talk."
That turnover, the fourth of five made by the Terrapins, was the one that enabled Clemson to escape with its 24-22 victory just when it seemed trapped. During the last two seasons, while running up a 19-1-1 record, it has been the defense that has provided most of the big plays.
"Defense almost messed this one up though," said 310-pound nose guard William (Refrigerator) Perry, held in check most of the game by Maryland center Vince Tomasetti. "When we got that big lead we let down, let them get it goin' again. We should know better than that."
They survived the mistake and, as the players passed victory cigars around in the locker room, another ACC title virtually in hand, the talk turned to the future -- and probation.
"The coaches told us all week just to keep our minds on football and not worry about the future," quarterback Mike Eppley said. "If we get two years like they say, that's all I've got left. I can only hope."