It seemed like a day when University of Maryland head football coach Joe Krivak was going to make all the right moves. He caught Clemson off guard with the shotgun formation, surprised the Tigers with an end around and burned them with a shuffle pass.
The loss ended Maryland's chances to climb into this week's national rankings.
The loss also ended the last-minute heroics by the Terps (2-1 overall, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who had used two late touchdown passes from Scott Zolak to Gene Thomas to win each of the first two games.
But, yesterday, the Tigers won with basically four big plays, even though Maryland outplayed them. The Tigers (2-1, 1-1) scored on a 98-yard kickoff return by Doug Thomas in the second period, got a safety in the third, took advantage of Krivak's decision in the fourth with a 37-yard pass and, five plays later, scored the winning touchdown on an 11-yard pass in the right flat from quarterback DeChane Cameron to tailback Rudy Harris with 7 minutes, 59 seconds left in the game.
Maryland advanced as far as its 45 with 2:36 left in the game, but Zolak underthrew wide receiver Marcus Badgett at the Tigers 32, and the pass was intercepted by cornerback Dexter Davis.
Krivak's crucial decision came after an incomplete pass by Cameron to tight end Stacy Fields on third-and-two at the Clemson 40. On the play, the Tigers were called for having an illegal player downfield.
Maryland assistant head coach and linebackers coach George Foussekis initially signaled for the Terps to decline the penalty, which linebacker Scott Whittier did from the huddle. But, seconds later, Krivak made the decision to take the penalty.
Instead of Clemson's facing a fourth-and-two at its 40, the Tigers had a third-and-sevenat the 35. Cameron then passed to Thomas, also a wide receiver, for a 37-yard reception.
Minutes later, Clemson scored.
"Maybe we made a bad decision on fourth down, and if it was, that's my responsibility; it's on me," said Krivak. "But, if we take the penalty, and they don't make the play, then everything works out fine, and it's a good decision."
Krivak, though, said he thought Clemson lost the down on the penalty, which would have made it fourth-and-seven. The Terps had been called for the same penalty midway in the second period.
Asked if he would have made another decision had he known about the rule change that eliminated loss of down - in effect since at least 1988 - Krivak said: "I probably would have still taken it, because it was a short two and a long 1 1/2 .
The decision made for a lot of second-guessing. Why would Clemson go for it again after being stopped fourth-and-two at the Maryland 41 on the previous series? This time, the Tigers were inside their territory with a lot of time left in the game.
Then again, why wouldn't the Tigers go for it? They had big fullback Howard Hall, 6 feet, 232 pounds, who had 47 yards yards rushing on 15 carries, mostly on quick dives up the middle. Plus, Maryland had failed to score on two drives earlier in the second half with Clemson's defense gaining more confidence.
"We'll never know, will we?" said Ken Hatfield, Clemson's first-year coach, when asked about what he'd have done on fourth-and-two. "I think a lot of their decision to take the penalty was out of respect for Gardocki's [punter and place-kicker Chris Gardocki] kicking and the fact they they knew we had gone for it before."
Krivak had the support of his players, even though there seemed to be some confusion in the Maryland defensive huddle.
"I wasn't really surprised at the call," said Maryland cornerback Scott Rosen. "They had been sending that big fullback up the middle all day. I'm pretty sure they would have gone for it, and XTC I'm pretty sure they would have gotten it. At first, we started to decline it, but then we weren't so sure. We stopped and looked over at the sidelines, and everybody including the coaches were motioning to take them back."
Maryland inside linebacker Scott Whittier said: "I thought they would have gone for it. It's just a feeling I have. It wasn't a bad call."
Maryland's loss, though, probably shouldn't have hinged on Krivak's decision. The Terps defense, which has been the main reason for the strong showing thus far, held Clemson to 281 yards of total offense. The Terps, led by defensive lineman Larry Webster (nine tackles), Ralph Orta (12) and Lubo Zizakovic (nine), shut out Clemson on the Tigers' two first possessions of the game, one that started on the Maryland 24 and another that ended on the Terps 36.
But Maryland's offensive problems continued for the third straight game, as the Terps played in spurts. Maryland had 312 yards of total offense, but failed to put Clemson away in the middle quarters, when the Terps offense was nearly brilliant.