With the presence of a new starting quarterback, Maryland’s spread scheme looked as good as has since its season opener.
Clemson just happened to be great.
Spurred on by Sammy Watkins’ two receiving touchdowns and pivotal kickoff return for a score, the No. 8 Tigers rallied to a wild 56-45 victory over the beleaguered Terrapins at Byrd Stadium.
C.J. Brown rushed for 162 yards – a school record by a quarterback – and threw for three touchdowns as Maryland (2-4, 1-2 ACC) matched its loss total from a season ago despite its most entertaining performance of the season.
“I’m getting sick and tired of coming close and not getting the win,” safety Eric Franklin said after Maryland fell in a relatively tight game to a ranked team for the third time in a month.
On this particular night, he and the Terps have Watkins to blame.
The electrifying freshman set a Clemson record with 345 all-purpose yards, and he shredded a Maryland defense that fielded five freshmen starters with incredible precision.
Maryland was without linebackers Darin Drakeford, Demetrius Hartsfield and Kenny Tate. In truth, it might not have mattered against a wideout who might already be the most dangerous player in the ACC.
It was never more apparent than after Maryland, which held a 35-17 lead early in the second half only to fall behind 42-38, stitched together a 13-play drive to reclaim the lead on Brown’s touchdown pass to tight end Matt Furstenburg.
The advantage was short-lived. Watkins returned the kickoff 89 yards, darting untouched down the far sideline to hand the Tigers (7-0, 4-0) the lead for good with 7:24 remaining. While Clemson celebrated, ESPNU’s broadcast picked up first-year Maryland coach Randy Edsall vociferously expressing his displeasure with kicker Nick Ferrara.
Edsall spoke about consistency and execution, as is his wont, when asked directly about whether he didn’t want to kick to Watkins. But needless to say, it was one more opportunity for the best player on the field to burn the Terps, and he capitalized with apparent ease.
“That kid’s good,” defensive tackle Joe Vellano said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Not to mention an unanswerable threat.
Watkins’ damage was minimized in the first half while the Tigers were busy producing the sort of play that has come to define their program in recent years. Despite a surplus of athleticism and depth, Clemson effectively handed Maryland two touchdowns off turnovers (including an interception return for a touchdown) to increase its degree of difficulty in remaining unbeaten.
Brown’s performance – and his effectiveness while running zone reads – made matters worse for Clemson. Maryland opted to go with Brown over fellow sophomore Danny O’Brien, who was benched a week earlier at Georgia Tech and had his starts streak snapped at 15 games.
The Terps’ offense looked similar to how it did in the season opener against Miami, picking up chunks of yardage and piling up points. It was also quick, with Brown’s speed one notable difference compared to O’Brien.
“We just wanted to keep going up-tempo,” Brown said. “That was what they preached this week.”
Clemson could go fast, too, and it erased an 18-point deficit with a Watkins-fueled burst that further crescendoed with his kickoff return.
“It’s a blow. You go down and score, and then they go back and score. You just have to bounce back – quickly,” Franklin said.
The same could be said for the course of Maryland’s season, which continues to add losses and injuries at a rapid rate.
While the Terps’ only realistic chance to match last year’s win total is winning out (including a bowl), it appears Maryland could be without even more than the 10 players declared out with injuries against Clemson. Linebacker Avery Graham and wide receiver Tyrek Cheeseboro were both helped off the field, and leading receiver Kevin Dorsey was not seen on the field in the second half.
At the season’s midpoint, the Terps’ margin for error continues to narrow, and Saturday’s trip to Florida State could push Maryland closer to the misery of a losing season. And that, by no one’s definition, would be great for a program sinking ever-deeper in the ACC standings by the week.