Caleb Rowe faced the Maryland sideline and galloped down the field, far behind his teammates who were mobbing the end zone. He threw his arms up in celebration then stuck them down, hunching over like he was pretending to be an airplane. It was early into ninth-ranked Clemson’s 40-27 victory over the Terrapins on Saturday afternoon, but at that moment Rowe had never flown higher.
A simple slant pattern turned into Levern Jacobs outracing the Tigers secondary for a 71-yard touchdown and a 7-3 Maryland lead midway through the first quarter. Rowe’s afternoon, his third career start, tumbled downhill from there. After Clemson responded with its second field goal, the result of another red-zone drive stuffed by the stingy Terps defense, Rowe again marched Maryland down the field.
The first quarter came and went, with the Terps still at their 46-yard line. A screen pass to Albert Reid for 11 yards, another first-down reception by Nigel King and a 22-yard hookup with Jacobs had helped move the chains. When Reid chugged 23 yards, inside the Clemson 10-yard line, a chance to go up even more dangled at their fingertips.
On third and goal, Rowe dropped back in the shotgun formation. King ran a crossing pattern deep by the back of the end zone. The running backs remained for protection, so Rowe’s eyes zoomed in on paydirt. He tried to “make a high fastball,” but never saw safety Tigers Jayron Kearse, the nephew of Javon Kearse, an NFL player so ferocious his nickname was “The Freak.” The younger Kearse, a freshman, leaped into the passing lane and intercepted Rowe, bringing it out to the Clemson 25-yard line.
“There is man coverage and the safety had the back … and [Rowe] needs to use his eyes a little bit better to take [Kearse] away from where he’s going and that guy did a good job of reading his eyes and went over and threw the pick,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “The biggest thing with Caleb is he’s got to understand he doesn’t need to win a game on one play. We’re working with him about just taking what the defense gives you. He got better at that today I felt, and that’s just something that were going to continue working with him on and talking to him about.”
Until garbage time, inaccuracy was the biggest culprit. As Maryland fought for its life, twice blessed by its defense with perfect field position, Rowe struggled. He learned on Thursday that C.J. Brown would not play with a trunk injury suffered last weekend against Wake Forest, so again Rowe became the substitute.
His numbers – 19 of 45 for 282 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions – won’t turn many heads. By nature, Rowe dances with fire on the field, a high-risk, high-reward option with a cannon arm who sometimes tries to squeeze high fastballs into tight strike zones. Spanning halftime, the sophomore threw nine straight incompletions, hit 3 of 4, then misfired on nine straight again.
“I felt like I did okay,” Rowe said. “Of course I left plays out on the field. Everyone did. It wasn’t good enough in the end.”
Of course, several of Rowe’s hard passes squirted through the hands of Maryland’s receivers, a group of backups missing stars Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Had Diggs and Long been around, who knows how things might have gone with Rowe under center. Then again, that’s a question the Terps regularly face.
Deep into the fourth quarter, Rowe turned things around, too little too late but at least enough to personally exit on a high note. Down 20 points, he tore apart the Clemson defense for completions of 16, 11, 25 and 11 yards. Like Rowe did against Virginia two weekends ago, when his late touchdown pass to Dave Stinebaugh helped Maryland to a one-point victory, he bought time with his legs and launched on the run, slinging a five-yard touchdown to Amba Etta-Tawo that injected some life into the Terps’ sideline.
“I thought he made some good throws and I thought, there for a point, in the fourth quarter he started to kind of step back and not step in to his throws, talked to him about it,” Edsall said. “Then he went back out there on those last couple of drives and really stood in there and did some good things. Again, he’s a young guy that will continue to get better. He has the ability to throw the football and again, we just got to continue to coach him and continue to understand.”
After Rowe took a sack and lost a fumble – his third turnover of the afternoon, though one interception came on a last-second Hail Mary before halftime – he hooked up with King for a 14-yard touchdown. They didn’t celebrate like they did before, and Rowe didn’t turn into an airplane. But for someone whose quarterbacking status may perpetually exist on a week-to-week basis, depending on Brown’s health, it was a refreshing reminder of his potential, on an afternoon when so many things went the other way.
“Every game has been a learning experience, because we have young guys playing,” Rowe said. “Sooner or later the opportunity is going to come where they have to make plays.”