Clemson breaks through at right time

September 16, 1990|By Don Markus

The door to the Clemson dressing room at Memorial Stadium was bent out of shape. It seems that the Tigers football team was locked out for a few minutes at halftime of yesterday's game against Maryland, and a burly manager had to break down the door with a forearm shiver.

"He did a good job," Clemson coach Ken Hatfield said, jokingly.

Better than the Tigers did in the first half against Maryland. But there was a bit of symbolism in that small crack of space, for it came to represent the opening Clemson finally used to slip by the Terrapins, 18-17, and back into the Atlantic Coast Conference race.

It wasn't so much joy the Tigers were feeling as relief. They knew how fortunate they were to beat Maryland on an 11-yard touchdown catch by sophomore running back Rudy Harris. More so, they knew how close they had come to losing for the second straight week on the road.

"They gave us some chances, and we took advantage," said junior quarterback DeChane Cameron. "We feel good about winning, but we know we still have a lot of work to do."

One week after not making the plays in the waning moments of a 20-7 loss to Virginia -- a loss that ended a 29-0 Tigers streak against the Cavaliers -- Clemson made the plays it needed. It won despite losing two key offensive players, tailback Rodney Blunt and all-conference tackle Stacy Long.

"We grew up a lot out there today," said Hatfield.

Among the biggest plays for the Tigers were:

*Cameron's 37-yard pass to Doug Thomas on third-and-seven from the Clemson 35 midway through the fourth quarter. Coming after Maryland took a intentional-grounding penalty against the Tigers, the play helped set up Cameron's winning throw to Harris.

*Dexter Davis' interception of Scott Zolak with 2 minutes, 23 seconds remaining, which stopped the Terrapins from more last-minute heroics. Davis, who had played tentatively for most of the first three quarters, had two of Clemson's three interceptions.

*Freshman tailback Ronald Williams' crucial first down with a little more than a minute left. Williams, playing for an injured Blunt, got 2 tough yards on third-and-one from the Maryland 49. The Terrapins were out of timeouts, as well as hope.

"That was a very big play," said Hatfield. "We didn't want to get them the ball back. You never know what can happen in those situations."

What happened yesterday to 16th-ranked Clemson before those plays was a residue of last week's loss in Charlottesville. The emotional buildup to perhaps the biggest game this year in the ACC, as well as the disappointment from defeat, had played on the Tigers' minds.

It may have explained, in part, the indecision Clemson displayed yesterday during the first half, for the dropped passes and mistimed pitches on offense, for the blown assignments and penalties on defense. It left the Tigers trailing, 14-10, going into their dressing room.

"You feel pressure, not in a sense that you lost a game, but that you don't want to lose two in a row," said Thomas, who had dropped an apparent touchdown pass with less than four minutes left against the Cavaliers but redeemed himself yesterday with a second-quarter, 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the third-down catch. "And a lot of people were saying that [former] Coach [Danny] Ford had never lost to Virginia. You get a little self-conscious about it."

Hatfield, who replaced Ford in January, had taken his share of criticism for the loss to Virginia, but had attributed that and the Tigers' uneven play yesterday to inexperience.

"We didn't have a lot of confidence," said Hatfield. "But it's hard for team as young as ours to get confidence unless they get into game situations."

Even Davis, the all-conference cornerback, said: "Our heads weren't totally into the game, and Maryland could see that. I wasn't mentally ready. But at halftime, we came in here and said, 'It's time to play Clemson football.'"

Exactly what that is this year has yet to be determined. With a change of coaches and in several key offensive positions, including quarterback, the Tigers had struggled. Harris' touchdown was the first by the offense in five quarters.

Cameron, who finished 14 of 25 for 164 yards and a touchdown, jump-started Clemson with that big third-down pass to Thomas. "I was thinking that this gave us another life," Cameron said later. "It was lucky for us that it turned out that way."

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