(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Backs against the wall, the Maryland defense stood strong. Then again. Then once more. After cobbling together the worst sack rate and worst takeaway rate among ACC teams during conference play, the Terrapins met ninth-ranked Clemson with something to prove. They knew only a perfect Saturday afternoon could help ward off the Tigers’ spread offense enough to warrant an upset and, for some time, the unit’s bend-but-not-break identity held true.

“I thought that was big for us in general,” linebacker Matt Robinson said. “We knew we had to execute in order to win. I thought we did that for the most part. The biggest thing was keeping them out of the end zone in the first half. The fact that they had those two field goals, then another, that was really big.”

Indeed, Maryland reviewed film on Sunday ruing crucial missed opportunities on offense, but a 40-27 defeat could have been far more lopsided far earlier had the defense not held Clemson to nine points on three red-zone trips.

“That happens because you are playing hard, running to the ball, and guys are taking care of their responsibilities,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “I didn’t think we tackled as well as we needed to early on. The field goals kept us in striking distance because we kept them out of the end zone.”

The way quarterback Tajh Boyd carved through the thinned defense outside of the red zone, avoiding touchdowns seemed nearly impossible. The up-tempo, no-huddle attack blitzed the Terps on its first drive, completing high-percentage passes for chunk yardage that quickly dumped the Tigers at the Maryland 15-yard line.

But Isaac Goins stopped all-American slot receiver Sammy Watkins for two yards on first down. Robinson popped running back Roderick McDowell at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Then Boyd missed Watkins, sending Chandler Catanzaro on for a 31-yarder.

“I think we know how good of a team we have, and how good of a defense we have,” linebacker Abner Logan said. “I guess this maybe puts it on paper, how good we are. We should have held them to less points. It just demonstrates how good of a team we are.”

Clemson once again brought the battering ram to Maryland’s doorstep on its next drive, churning out five plays of at least eight yards and reaching third down just once. When a substitution infraction gave the Tigers first-and-goal from the 4-yard line, and then a pass interference penalty on cornerback Will Likely halved the distance, a breakthrough seemed inevitable.

But then Maryland brought forth arguably its most impressive sequence of the entire season. Marcus Whitfield stuffed McDowell for a two-yard loss on first down. Boyd tried to do it himself on second down, but Logan met him for a one-yard loss. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart dialed up a gutsy jailbreak blitz on third-and-goal from the 5-yard line, and both Cole Farrand and Sean Davis surged past scrimmage barely touched, sacking Boyd for a seven-yard loss. Once again, Catanzaro was summoned.

“We’re the defense,” safety Sean Davis said. “We’re the big red. We really want to protect that. We didn’t’ do a great job last week, so we definitely had to hone in this week, not let them score in the red zone. We did do our job, keeping them out of the end zone with them kicking field goals.”

And after Clemson reached the Maryland 13-yard line on its next drive and once more left with a chip-shot field goal, the Terps felt in control. “We always thought we could have beaten them at any point in the game,” Logan said. “Everyone was very positive, even though they scored right before half. No one got down on each other. The game was still in reach by far. We just had to execute better.”

That pre-halftime touchdown, a five-yarder from Boyd to tight end Jordan Leggett, put Clemson up 16-7. But the Terps emerged from intermission somehow stronger. They forced a three-and-out on the first possession then, for the first time since conference play began, coaxed a turnover. Actually, they coaxed two.

First, Robinson stripped Watkins and nose tackle Darius Kilgo recovered. Then, Whitfield hit McDowell and Robinson recovered. Both fumbles were Clemson’s first of the drive. Both times, the offense took over well inside Tigers territory. The defense had done its part.

“I know we needed turnovers,” Robinson said. “That’s something we were known for, but we haven’t been able to generate them. To have those on consecutive drives, then put our offense into scoring position, it was huge.”

The third quarter ended innocently enough, with another Clemson field goal and then a three-and-out. Dealt a short field after running back Albert Reid fumbled, however, the Terps finally broke. A 5-yard touchdown rush from Boyd doubled up Maryland 26-13. Two drives later, McDowell’s three-yard touchdown rush iced it, putting the game its defense kept so close for so long finally out of reach.