Clemson coach Tommy Bowden summed up Clemson’s 20-17 loss to Maryland Saturday as well as anyone – the Tigers simply self-destructed.
Two fumbles, a breakdown defensively on a reverse and two costly penalties doomed No. 20 Clemson, putting it in a whole it must try to dig out of in the ACC race if it hopes to make it to the conference’s championship game in December.
“Maryland played well and I complement them, but the reason we lost the game was ours, not theirs,” Bowden said.
The two biggest gaffs came in the second half. The first was on an apparent 59-yard touchdown run by C.J. Spiller on their first possession of the second half which would have given the Tigers a three-score lead at the time, but wide receiver Aaron Kelly was called for holding and the play was called back.
Clemson (3-2, 1-1 ACC) never sniffed the end zone again.
The Tigers failed to convert a first down after that and on the first play after giving the ball back to Maryland; Darius Heyward-Bey dashed 76 yards on a reverse. One play later, quarterback Chris Turner tossed a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith, cutting Clemson’s lead to 17-13 with 8:34 to go in the third.
“That was a 14-point swing like that (snapping his fingers),” Bowden said.
The second major penalty came on the Tigers’ final possession. Trailing 20-17 following a Da’Rel Scott 1-yard run with 10:25 to go, Clemson running back James Davis ran straight ahead for 7 yards on a second-and-10 play. However, reserve wideout Xavier Dye was flagged for a late hit downfield, costing the Tigers 15 yards.
Instead of a third down-and-short at the Maryland 42, the Tigers instead found themselves with a third-and-18 from their own 43.
“When you self-destruct on offense, you can’t expect to beat good teams,” Bowden said.
Spiller did his best to get the yardage back, taking a screen pass and fighting his way down the right sideline for a 17-yard gain. Needing a half-foot to pick up the first down and keep the drive alive, quarterback Cullen Harper was stuffed for no gain with 5:36 to play.
The Tigers did not get the ball back after that.
“I thought I had enough momentum and had carried (the ball) over,” said Harper, who threw for 151 yards on 15-of-22 passing. “I thought it was a good play call. I thought the line was doing a good job coming off the ball and I’m 225 pounds. I felt like I could make that and I thought I got it, but I will have to look at the tape and see.”
But the feeling surrounding the sellout crowd Saturday was that the game should have never come down to that one play. Clemson dominated the first half, rushing for 195 yards on 26 carries. Davis, who finished with 126 yards and Spiller, 98 yards, combined for all, but two of those yards, including a 34-yard touchdown run by Spiller and a 38-yard Davis touchdown.
It appeared that was more than enough to get Clemson over the top, especially considering the defense was having its best game to date. Led by Ricky Sapp’s three tackles for a loss, the Tigers held a Maryland offense that put 54 points the week before to two Obi Egekeze field goals and 93 yards of offense in the opening 30 minutes.
“We played well in the first two quarters, but we couldn’t finish the job,” Sapp said.
To Maryland’s credit, it adjusted to Clemson’s aggressive style of defensive play, using bootlegs and reverses at key moments in the second half. The biggest was Bey’s 76-yard reverse.
“We knew they had some trick plays,” Sapp said. “We knew they were going to use them at some point, but they just converted. We didn’t stop them when we had to and that was the difference.”
The Terrapins (4-1, 1-0) totaled 202 yards of offense in the second half, while Clemson managed just 112. It was a complete switch from the first. Davis and Spiller combined to rush for just 31 yards in the second half on 10 carries.
After combining with Spiller for 21 carries in the first, Davis said he was surprised that emphasis to run the football changed in the second half.
“I’m not going to lie. I was surprised just as much as you guys were,” he said. “We just couldn’t get anything going. We just couldn’t get a big play in that second half. You have to be able to score when you go against a team like this.”
And they also have to limit the mistakes.
“Anytime you have two pretty good teams and one self-destructs, that’s the one that is probably going to lose the game,” Bowden said.
On this day, that team was Clemson.