Clemson University

Terps topple Tigers

Clemson's Cullen Harper misses his receiver Tyler Grisham.
Clemson's Cullen Harper misses his receiver Tyler Grisham.

CLEMSON -- The first sign Clemson was in for a rude awakening Saturday came before dawn, when players were shuffled outdoors at the team hotel because of an apparent fire alarm prank.

Another alarm was triggered after a 20-17 defeat to Maryland.

The season pegged as a breakthrough for coach Tommy Bowden now faces the threat of going up in flames.

The Tigers expected to have a clearer sense of their identity after facing their first formidable opponent in a month.

Instead they got a reality check -- one that left them trudging off their home field with a numbness befitting their bizarre collapse.

"It felt like we were winning the game," junior tight end Michael Palmer said. "I have no idea what just happened."

What happened might not rob 20th-ranked Clemson (3-2, 1-1 ACC) of its shot at the Atlantic Division title. But it sure cast doubt whether the Tigers will even be in the race some predicted they would win uncontested.

In a game reminiscent of the teams' 2006 meeting in Death Valley, underdog Maryland (4-1, 1-0) hung around long enough to deliver a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive.

The boos emitted from the Memorial Stadium capacity crowd as time expired this time, though, suggested the outcome never should have come down to that.

Clemson thoroughly manhandled the Terps on both sides of the ball in the first half, yet only had a 17-6 halftime lead to show for it.

Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak said coaches told players, "If we hit them in the mouth, they're going to fold."

It would be hard to argue the Tigers did not oblige.

"I told them I thought Maryland played well and complimented them, but the reason I think we lost the game was in our room, not theirs," Bowden said.

And there was enough blame to go around.

After pummeling Maryland with 195 rushing yards in the first half, Clemson mustered just 26 in the second, when the Terps devoted an extra defender to run support.

Yet the Tigers were unable to then punish Maryland through the air, and when they did manage some success, it was usually negated by a penalty or an ensuing negative play that killed the drive.

A holding penalty on receiver Aaron Kelly erased a C.J. Spiller 59-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. Clemson's next three drives accumulated a total of 33 yards.

Meanwhile, Maryland had uncovered ways to take advantage of Clemson's defensive aggression, eventually using a play-action pass to set up its go-ahead, 1-yard touchdown run with 10:25 remaining.

Still, the Tigers marched back downfield, and appeared on the verge of a recovery when Spiller made several dazzling moves to take a third-and-18 dump-off pass within a half-yard of a first down.

Facing fourth-and-inches from the Maryland 40, quarterback Cullen Harper was unable to burrow for a first down, giving the Terps possession with 5:36 remaining.

Maryland then displayed the grit Clemson has been criticized for lacking since the season-opening Alabama debacle, converting a pair of third-down passes to put the game on ice.

"A lot of that stuff added up," Harper said.

Overcoming the cumulative effect figures to be Clemson's challenge as it enters a bye week before its Oct. 9 Thursday night showdown at No. 16 Wake Forest, which lost Saturday to Navy.

Harper said it will be a long two weeks for the team because of the negativity that it is sure to be exposed.

"It's going to be very important for this team to stay together," Spiller said.

"We're going to take a lot of heat, coach Bowden is going to take a lot of heat, and both coordinators. It's adversity, and we're getting ready to see what type of team this is."