Clemson 28, Maryland 24
For all practical purposes, the final 15-yard penalty against Maryland yesterday was wholly irrelevant. Clemson merely needed to wait out 47 meaningless seconds to clinch a 28-24 win, and 15 yards in one direction or another had no bearing on that process.
But as a symbol, that last penalty -- Maryland's fifth unsportsmanlike conduct or personal foul of the game and the last in a series of mental blunders -- could hardly have been more fitting.
Clemson's first three scoring drives were aided by four of those conduct penalties. Two fourth-quarter offensive chances for the Terps were spoiled by additional miscues -- a false start and a holding call among them.
So a 10-point lead, which had prompted a few confident Maryland fans to head toward the exits early in the fourth quarter, turned into a deflating four-point loss. Huge chunks of the announced crowd of 50,637 remained seated at the end, watching silently as Clemson's fans celebrated, the Tigers' band blared its fight song and their players raised their orange helmets in triumph.
"We gave that one away," said Maryland senior linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who was furious at himself after drawing one of those conduct penalties for pushing after the whistle. "We didn't get beat. We gave it away."
In truth, the No. 25 Tigers (2-0) had plenty to do with their late-game rally. Their anemic offense became suddenly potent in the final quarter, gaining 145 yards after tallying 147 in the first three periods.
After completely ignoring the inexperienced and battered Maryland secondary for most of the game, the Tigers finally went downfield with 71/2 minutes left, and a perfect 51-yard toss from Charlie Whitehurst to Curtis Baham made it 24-21. Maryland (1-1) failed to move the ball, and on the Tigers' ensuing possession they shredded a flagging defense, finally surging ahead on a 38-yard third-down run by Reggie Merriweather with less than three minutes remaining.
"All we had to do was come up with a stop defensively and the game was pretty much over," said Jackson, who made 16 tackles and has 34 in two games. "And we couldn't do it."
But as Jackson acknowledged, the final possession wouldn't have mattered if not for the earlier shower of yellow flags. Clemson's first drive of the game was stymied after three plays, until William Kershaw drew a taunting penalty. The Tigers then put together the lengthiest scoring drive in school history, a 9-minute 47-second journey to the end zone.
The Tigers' first possession of the second half received a similar boost: simultaneous personal fouls on cornerback Gerrick McPhearson and Jackson. And on their third touchdown drive, the Tigers started deep in their own territory before getting a jumpstart from another 15-yard call on McPhearson, this time for a late hit.
"We can't beat ourselves like that," linebacker David Holloway said of the Terps, who finished with eight penalties for 98 yards. "We were a little too aggressive, and not using our heads always. That's something we can't do."
Still, a resurgent offense nearly made those calls insignificant. With the running game going nowhere, Sam Hollenbach threw for 288 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Derrick Fenner missed the game because of a concussion suffered last week, and in his absence Vernon Davis (six catches for 140 yards and a touchdown) and Danny Melendez (five catches for 74 yards) had career days.
But on two crucial chances in the fourth quarter, the offense, too, was done in by mental errors. With its 10-point lead still intact, Maryland faced second and one from its 42-yard line, until center Ryan McDonald was whistled for a false start and Hollenbach lost seven yards on a sack.
And with a final chance to rally, Maryland moved the ball past the 50 yard-line, until a seven-yard pass to Davis was wiped out by a holding call. The offense then lost its compass, moving backward on consecutive plays and failing to convert a fourth and 30 on the game's last meaningful snap.
"We've really got to play 60 minutes," said Hollenbach, who earlier threw an interception and lost a costly fumble inside the Clemson 20. "In the ACC, if you don't do that you'll get embarrassed by it. And that's what happened."