(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The victory was right there for the Maryland football players, gift-wrapped, served onto a silver platter and dangled before their very eyes.

The Terrapins trailed ninth-ranked Clemson by just nine points early into the third quarter, a small miracle given the exhausting injury list unfurled two days before. But when Tigers wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who will soon make millions playing on Sundays, coughed up a fumble on an innocent screen pass and defensive lineman Darius Kilgo pounced on the loose ball, a glimmer of hope peaked through the sunset over Byrd Stadium.

“I thought we got this,” said linebacker Matt Robinson, whose swipes forced that takeaway, Maryland’s first in ACC play. “We just have to keep going, keep going. Unfortunately we just didn’t.”

The Terps took over deep in Clemson territory, a chance to cut the deficit just 23 yards away. But Albert Reid lost one yard on a rush. Then quarterback Caleb Rowe’s dump-down pass to tight end P.J. Gallo got tipped at the line of scrimmage. Then Rowe overthrew Reid. And suddenly, Maryland settled for a 41-yard field goal by Brad Craddock.

No matter. The Tigers were altruists. They offered another shot. After Watkins took the kickoff return to the Clemson 25-yard line, it happened again. Linebacker Marcus Whitfield popped running back Roderick McDowell, who promptly lost the football. Robinson scooped it up, and with it an opportunity to take the lead.

Once again, however, the offense stalled at the worst possible time. Reid rushed for three yards and Rowe threw two  incompletions. Two drives that began inside the Clemson 30-yard line managed just two net yards. Craddock again stuck from 41 yards, but the Terps were still behind 16-13. They lost, 40-27.

“Give Clemson credit, but we had our opportunities and we weren’t able to capitalize on them,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “That’s the thing we’ll go back and learn from it and get better.”

“It’s frustrating because we had those opportunities, and we didn’t take advantage of them,” Rowe said.

“It’s always frustrating when you can drive the ball all the way down the field and not convert,” said wide receiver Levern Jacobs, who finished with a career-high 158 receiving yards on eight catches. “There were some things we could have done to punch it in the end zone.”

As the players fielded questions during postgame interviews, they toed a fine line between disappointment over a third ACC loss and pride over trading blows with a top 10 team. Matters eventually snowballed here after dusk, from a gluttony of penalties to Rowe’s woeful inaccuracy (44 percent for the game) to late a Reid fumble to a 14-point Clemson barrage that left the Terps down 20 points with 7:57 left in the fourth quarter.

But maybe, with this ridiculous litany of injuries turning the starting lineup into a parade of backups, close was enough to find solace.

“If anything, it opens our eyes,” linebacker Abner Logan said. “The public really doesn’t really matter, but it just shows what type of team we really have, when we really put our mind to it and execute what we need to do. We weren’t perfect by any means, but it demonstrates what type of team we have, what potential we can reach. Ranked teams and stuff like that, it personally doesn’t mean anything until the end of the year. They’re men just like us. They get coached just like us. We don’t really pay attention to that.”

Perhaps Logan was being overly optimistic, but the Terps left Byrd Stadium with the slight feeling of accomplishment. They hated how the night ended, with two late Rowe touchdown passes providing the last breaths for a fading team. They will kick themselves for all those missed opportunities, and yet managed to immediately look toward the future. Several players should return from the injury list after the Terps’ upcoming bye week. On the other side lies a very beatable Syracuse team, bowl eligibility once again possible.

“I told the guys afterwards, we’re going to accomplish the goals we want to accomplish this year,” Edsall said. “We’re going to come up in the last third of the season, we’re going to accomplish what we need to accomplish regardless of injuries or anything else. I know the players are determined to do that, the coaching staff is determined to do that. That’s all part of the building process of what we need to do with this program.”


Terps can’t capitalize vs. Tigers.

Edsall discusses injuries at length.

Maryland gets commitment from mammoth offensive lineman.