At the end of a dizzying night of football at Byrd Stadium, after Maryland and Clemson combined for 1,044 yards, 163 plays and 101 points, the home team left with a losing record, a collection of eye-popping highlights by a freshman playmaker and just one consolation: The Terrapins may have found their offensive spark midway through the season.
In one of the wildest Maryland games in recent years, the Terrapins squandered an 18-point third-quarter lead, failing to keep pace with eighth-ranked Clemson in a 56-45 loss before an announced crowd of 47,961 fans who sat in rapt attention.
First-year Maryland Coach Randy Edsall made a bold and somewhat unpopular decision of benching quarterback Danny O’Brien, last season’s ACC rookie of the year, in place of sophomore C.J. Brown, who made his first career start. Brown said he found out he was starting in pregame warmups.
“We could not catch Brown, and we changed up players marking him,” Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “We didn’t have a lot of video evidence to go off of this week, which really hurt us.”
But the player who stood out among everyone was Clemson freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who scored three touchdowns, including an 89-yard kickoff return for a score that broke Maryland’s momentum in the fourth quarter. Watkins amassed 345 all-purpose yards, surpassing Clemson’s single-game record established by C.J. Spiller in 2009.
“That kid, that Watkins, he can run,” Maryland defensive tackle Joe Vellano said.
A victory would have marked a potential turning point for Edsall, whose fan base had grown restless, whose offense had looked out of sync and whose defense had been severely depleted by injury. Without linebackers Kenny Tate and Demetrius Hartsfield on the field because of injuries, the Terrapins leaned on five freshmen starters, including 17-year-old linebacker Alex Twine.
Instead of finding a turning point during a rocky first season, Edsall fell to 1-19 in his career against ranked teams. And at the midpoint of the season, the Terrapins (2-4, 1-2 ACC) have already matched their loss total from last season. To reach a bowl game in a year Edsall has said is not a rebuilding opportunity, Maryland will now need to win four of its final six games. All but two of the games will be away from Byrd Stadium.
“It’s a tough one,” Edsall said of the loss during a news conference in which he declined to elaborate on the performance of his quarterback or mounting injuries.
But a roster that has already been thinned considerably promises to be weakened further by injury. Wide receiver Kevin Dorsey, linebacker Avery Graham and wide receiver Tyrek Cheeseboro were seen tending to various physical ailments during the game.
“We have had some more injuries,” Edsall said. “We have some guys who will probably be out for an extended period of time.”
An impressive homecoming crowd watched the highest-scoring contest in the 60-game history of the series between the schools.
Maryland’s two first-quarter touchdowns were a direct result of miscues by Clemson: a fumbled punt and an interception returned for a touchdown. That helped the Terrapins take a 28-17 halftime lead even though the Tigers had amassed 281 yards on 48 plays.
The Terrapins extended their lead to 35-17 two minutes into the third quarter when Brown completed a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Furstenburg. Without showing any signs of panic, the Tigers chipped away at the deficit with long runs and with significant yards after catches.
With 11 minutes 26 seconds left in the game, Clemson took its first lead since early in the game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd finished off a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jaron Brown.
But C.J. Brown answered on a third-and-10 play by throwing a short pass to Furstenburg, who raced 32 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, giving Maryland a 45-42 lead.
Then came Watkins’s kickoff return for a touchdown, and Clemson added a final touchdown — a 44-yard run by Andre Ellington — for good measure.
Ellington finished with 212 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
From the start of the game, Clemson displayed its arsenal of offensive weapons and didn’t show any signs of authoring a letdown that has defined several past Tigers teams.
On the game’s first drive, Clemson drove 95 yards, gobbling up at least four yards on almost all of its 14 plays. The Terrapins earned a small victory by forcing the Tigers to settle for an 18-yard field goal.
Brown found success on Maryland’s first drive by throwing quick slants to receivers. Once the drive stalled, the Terrapins got a break when Watkins fumbled the punt and Austin Walker recovered at the Clemson 9.
Two plays later, running back Davin Meggett ran through the middle for the nine-yard score. That was just Maryland’s fourth first-half offensive touchdown this season.
Maryland cornerback Cameron Chism and safety Eric Franklin dropped potential interceptions. But later in the quarter, Boyd attempted to throw a quick pass to DeAndre Hopkins, but Boyd didn’t see Chism, who intercepted the pass and ran 46 yards into the end zone to give the Terrapins a 14-3 lead. It was Chism’s second interception return for a touchdown this season.
Clemson retook momentum when Watkins returned the ensuing kickoff 70 yards to set up the Tigers’ first touchdown: a three-yard run by Ellington, who rushed for 81 yards in the first quarter alone.
Maryland wide receiver Ronnie Tyler dropped what would have been a long reception — if not a touchdown — late in the first half.
That was just one of many plays Maryland can rue in the coming days.