BALTIMORE, SEPT. 15 -- Maryland managed to pull off victories over Virginia Tech and West Virginia in its opening two games despite an offense that could not finish off many opportunities inside the 30-yard line. The Terrapins faced that same deficiency again today, and it cost them.
Had they put points on the board on any of four straight possessions midway in the game, Coach Joe Krivak's controversial decision to accept a penalty with just less than 10 minutes to play probably would not have mattered.
Instead, the Terrapins lost, 18-17, to Clemson at Memorial Stadium in what junior cornerback Scott Rosen described as "the toughest loss I've had to deal with here. The other times when we've lost to them it was by twenty-some points. But to be this close and lose.. . . "
It was typical of the anguish throughout the Maryland locker room, emotion brought on in part by the fact that the narrow defeat came largely because of a series of errors on four possessions that bridged the second and third quarters when the Terrapins were nursing a 14-10 lead.
Yet another mistake, a Dexter Davis interception of a pass from Scott Zolak to wide receiver Marcus Badgett at the Clemson 34, was a cruel reminder of how the Terrapins won their first two games, on post patterns to Gene Thomas in the final minutes.
"It's one of those things where I guess you could say that if we play down to the wire and live and die by those passes then you're not going to make them all the time," said split end Barry Johnson. "But we'd like to think we can make them."
Today's offensive misfortune began in the final two minutes of the first half and lasted into the third quarter.
Leading by 14-10, the Terrapins on successive possessions saw Zolak's pass for Thomas get intercepted by Jerome Henderson at the Tigers 2; Dan DeArmas miss a 47-yard field goal attempt; Zolak again get intercepted on a pass from the Clemson 18; and the Tigers score a safety when center Mitch Suplee snapped the ball over Zolak's head and into the end zone from the Maryland 21.
Zolak's first interception came after Maryland had used just five plays to move from its 36 to the Tigers 17. One of those plays was a 30-yard pass to Thomas, who faked a post pattern, the darted back toward the sideline. Another big gain was an 11-yard pickup on a shovel pass from Zolak to H-back Frank Wycheck.
On Maryland's next possession, Zolak threw 34 yards to Johnson to get into Clemson territory. But on a third and eight from the 27, another shovel pass to Wycheck lost three yards, and DeArmas missed his field goal try.
Clemson running back Rodney Blunt fumbled the ball back to Maryland on the next play, the Terrapins taking over on the Tigers 30. Three plays later, from the 18, Zolak tried to hit Thomas on a fade pattern in the end zone but was intercepted by Davis.
"They were blitzing on the play," said Zolak. "It was a sight adjustment between me and Gene and I saw what he was trying to do, but I got hit when I threw. The ball got caught up in the wind -- I guess it wasn't the greatest throw in the world."
The safety came next, with 5:20 left in the third quarter. Suplee released his wild pitch while Zolak stood in the shotgun formation, a wrinkle that the Terrapins employed today for the first time.
"We used that play about 10-15 times and every time everything was right on the money," Krivak said. "One went astray. That's the physical nature of football -- you can make a mistake like that just like a fumble or interception."
Even after the safety, Maryland continued to pick up yardage, gaining at least one first down on its last four possessions, and scoring as DeArmas kicked a 39-yard field goal.
But Krivak's critical decision followed. With less than 10 minutes left, Clemson had a third and two from its 40. DeChane Cameron overthrew Stacy Fields. However, the Tigers were flagged for having an ineligible receiver downfield.
Krivak was faced with declining the penalty to set up fourth and two, or accepting it to give the Tigers third and seven. He accepted it, and Clemson made a first down -- on a 37-yard completion -- and went on to score the game's final points, on Cameron's 11-yard pass to Rudy Harris.
The Terrapins' drive to a potential winning score began on their 33-yard line. A pass to Johnson gained nine yards and Darrin Colvin carried for three. Zolak missed attempts to tight end Bret Boehly and Thomas before his ill-fated pass to Badgett.
Like Davis's first interception, his second -- at the Tigers 34 -- came after Badgett tried to make a pattern adjustment on the fly.
"They were doing a lot of different things on defense, using five or six defensive backs and playing two men deep the whole game," Zolak said. "The receivers did a great job of trying to find the holes back there and I was trying to put the ball in there as best I could."