CLEMSON, S.C. — The field goal attempt tumbled end over end toward the goal line, well short of the goal posts at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, a 55-yarder that never quite got enough strength behind it. Waiting patiently five yards deep in the end zone, Maryland defensive back Dexter McDougle cradled the football, surveying the landscape. No one thought to challenge him, so he took off running.
What ensued was a comical jaunt reminiscent of Vaudeville chase scenes, orange jerseys rumbling after Maryland’s No. 25, who took off down the far sideline, then bolted across the field, then decided that the near sideline was more to his liking.
At the line of scrimmage, linebacker Cole Farrand never thought McDougle would have enough hubris to bring it out. “He’s not going to return this,” Farrand thought. But off McDougle went, so Farrand thought, “Well, okay then.”
McDougle was credited with 74 miscellaneous return yards, but he might have traveled upwards of 150. He juked left and jabbed right, following the wall created by his admittedly surprised blockers, before he ran out of juice. He puttered by the Tigers bench, sometimes stopping altogether, hoping that someone would make a mistake, or that Clemson would just relinquish effort and let him walk into the end zone untouched.
“I was just like, please, somebody let these dudes give up,” said McDougle, who fielded punts in place of injured receiver Stefon Diggs (ankle). “I’m gone, I’m gone. They kept fighting and coming. I was just hurting. I pitched it back to my teammate, said you finish it off. I just wanted to try to get the ball into the end zone. I ran out of gas, so I was trying to get to somebody else to make the play.”
That teammate wound up being Anthony Nixon, a fellow defensive back who trailed McDougle as his legs turned to jelly. So McDougle executed a jump-turn, pitching the football back to Nixon, who was promptly tackled. Laughter ensued among the reporters, less about the actual act of desperation, but more so because he simply ran out of options.
“It was awesome. I told him, I’ve been waiting a while to see him catch one,” tight end Devonte Campbell said of McDougle. “I’ve seen him, over my career, catch a few in spring. He’s a pretty elusive guy. I told him before the game, I was excited to see what he’d do. That play, man, it was pretty unbelievable to watch. I’d put it up with some of the top plays I’ve been a part of in my college career. That was awesome.”
Matt Robinson said he should have pitched earlier, away from the sideline, but was impressed by McDougle’s disappearing act by the far sideline. Farrand saw his teammates dispensing jarring blocks down the field, and thought, “I have to get into this myself.”
“I’ve never seen somebody make so many cuts in one play,” Farrand said. “I thought he had to be running out of gas. And he did. I definitely think that play is worth the top 10. That was unbelievable.”
Said Robinson: “I feel like the whole defense was gassed after that. He ran one side, cut all the way back. It was a pretty cool play.”
In some ways, McDougle’s breathtaking burst was emblematic of this Maryland football team’s baffling season, a valiant effort of pride, an attempt to jolt life into an otherwise dire situation.
“He could have went down, he could have stepped out of bounds,” defensive lineman Joe Vellano said. “He was trying to keep fighting. You just have to keep playing. There’s no reason not to.”
But it mustered little other than symbolism. Brad Craddock hit a field goal after the drive stalled, but the Terps were too far behind at that point for it to matter in the – ahem — long run.
“Those plays will come,” Campbell said. “We just need more consistency in between. We’ve got guys who can make the types of plays that Dex made, all over the offense and defense. We’ll get a few of those plays every game. It’s just trying to be more consistent throughout the entirety of the game.”