What undoubtedly would have been a controversial decision by Maryland Coach Bobby Ross turned into a brilliant tactical move when Dan Plocki made a 20-yard field goal with three seconds left to give the Terrapins a turbulent 34-31 victory over Clemson today in Death Valley.
Before the Terrapins could celebrate clinching at least a tie for their third straight Atlantic Coast Conference title, a fight erupted on the sideline and Maryland players rushed out to protect Ross.
Several Terrapins later said they thought Clemson's Michael Perry, brother of former Clemson player William (The Refrigerator) Perry, had taken a swing at their coach. "Michael Perry may be a great football player, but what he did had no class," Maryland's Tony Edwards said afterward.
But minutes later, the fight was nearly lost on Ross, who chose instead to reflect on a pulsating victory in which Maryland (7-3, 5-0 in the ACC) came from behind four times, twice by 10 points. The victory likely wrapped up a bowl bid for Maryland, which does not play again until Nov. 29 at home against Virginia. Bowl bids officially can be extended next Saturday.
"This is one of the really great wins we've had in the four years I've been here," Ross said. "By God, did our kids hang on. That little Plocki, (a freshman walk-on) . . . I think he's won a scholarship today. That game's worth a scholarship."
Stan Gelbaugh's game was worth at least a place in the Maryland record books. His 361 yards passing broke Boomer Esiason's two-year old mark of 355. Gelbaugh completed 23 of 35 passes and by unofficial count had four more dropped that would have netted more than 100 yards.
Every pass Gelbaugh threw seemed to hit a Maryland receiver in the chest or hands. One of his three touchdown throws went for three yards to Edmunds for a touchdown to tie the game, 31-31, with 1:18 left.
The play was controversial for at least three reasons.
It looked as if the 25-second clock ran out on Maryland, which should have caused a five-yard delay-of-game penalty. Clemson Coach Danny Ford, whose team lost for the second straight week in game-ending controversy, screamed at the officials on the sideline and at his postgame press conference.
"I don't mind a guy missing a judgment call," Ford said. "But there's no excuse when it's a clock and all you've got is one responsibility, and that's to look at it and blow the whistle . . . "
Ford said half of his players were "hanging their heads, crying in (the closed locker room) because a guy can't read the clock. We lost, but we didn't deserve to lose."
The second controversy on that play was the catch itself. Edmunds didn't have the ball in his hands for long. But an official ruled he took two steps with it, which fulfilled his "possession" requirement.
And finally, Ross followed the catch by deciding to kick the extra point to tie, instead of going for two points to win. "I knew we had three timeouts left, and I felt our defense could get us the ball back in good field position," Ross said.
There was also the thought, Ross acknowledged, that a tie here would allow Maryland to win the ACC title outright with a victory over Virginia in the season finale. But a loss would, at best, allow Maryland a first-place tie with Georgia Tech.
"I didn't waste a second making the decision," Ross said. "I really felt we could get it back in good field position with three timeouts. We still wanted to play to win."
If Maryland had left here with a tie, there definitely would have been criticism from supporters, even though Ross had gone for the win in every previous situation at the end of a game in his four years at Maryland.
It became a moot point, however, because Maryland's defense, at the end of its worst performance this season, stopped Clemson (5-5, 4-3 in the ACC) in three plays to force a punt. Maryland got the ball at its 25 with 44 seconds left and needed only five plays before the field goal.
The big gainer was a 44-yard pass from Gelbaugh to Edmunds that moved Maryland to the eight with 13 seconds left. It came two plays after Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof had dropped a long pass from Gelbaugh at the 14.
Gelbaugh started the drive by completing a 12-yard pass to Eric Holder. After the dropped pass, Gelbaugh hit Rick Badanjek for 12 yards, then found Edmunds deep on a sideline pattern for 44 yards to the eight.
Maryland wanted to run one more play to the middle of the field for Plocki, who has made 12 of 14 kicks since taking the starting job from Ramon Paredes midway through the season. Alvin Blount (17 carries, 85 yards) ran the ball five yards but wound up all the way on the right hash mark, which Ross didn't want.
"It didn't matter because that's probably my favorite spot," said Plocki, who took some oral abuse from the Clemson players during two timeouts before kicking the game winner.
It was amazing that Gelbaugh could complete such a deep pass to Edmunds, considering Clemson was in prevent coverage and the backs were all over the Terrapins' receivers.
"But Stan was terrific," Badanjek said, offering the only explanation necessary. Gelbaugh had already thrown a 50-yard touchdown pass to Eric Holder in the first half for a 14-10 Maryland lead and a 20-yard touchdown to Edmunds that tied the game at 24 at the start of the fourth quarter.
Maryland's offense stalled five straight times in the second half, even with excellent field position. But at the end, all the primary players were on the field.
"This is definitely my favorite game of the year," Badanjek said