There are messages to be gleaned from the 18-17 loss Maryland experienced yesterday against Clemson at Memorial Stadium. One is that Joe Krivak's copy of the rule book is out of date. Another is that Clemson isn't nearly up to the standard that made it famous. No truth was more evident, however, than this: Maryland can play ball.
Sure, the Terps lost a game they should have won. That's not good. But let's step back for a moment and consider what is going on here. This is a team that was given a stack of bad notices in preseason, a team for which a losing season seemed assured. Those predictions are looking pretty bad now. The Terps are better than just about anyone, including themselves, expected. That's becoming obvious.
They lost yesterday because of a few one-shot breakdowns, a bad snap in the shotgun, blown coverage on a kick return, a bad decision by their coach. Tough luck. Had the game been decided by the offenses and defenses, the Terps would have won. They moved the ball consistently. Their defense stuffed Clemson almost the entire game. Let's spell this out plainly: The Terps were the better team.
Roll that around in your mouth a minute: better than Clemson.
That makes three games now in which the Terps have played with more sharpness and enthusiasm than at any time in the past few years. "We need to start thinking like a championship team, because we play like one," linebacker Scott Whittier said. "We didn't put them away today, and we need to learn how to do that. But it sure looks like we can play with anyone."
That certainly was the consensus in the Clemson locker room. "I was expecting them to be tough, but I didn't think they'd be this tough," cornerback Dexter Davis said. "They're not a fluke. They're a pretty good team."
More and more, this season is taking on a lively, interesting face. The Terps aren't going to win at Michigan or Virginia, but they certainly belong on the field with the Dukes, Wake Forests and everyone else on their schedule. That they'll have a winning season -- and ensure Krivak's return -- suddenly seems very much a possibility.
The biggest reason is the defense. Krivak should be commended for switching to a one-back offense and enlivening his playbook, and quarterback Scott Zolak has three dangerous receivers -- Gene Thomas, Barry Johnson and Frank Wycheck -- to use. But the defense is the heart of the team. The defense, composed almost entirely of upperclassmen, is keeping games close while the offense struggles to convert scoring chances.
The defense was so dominant yesterday that Clemson didn't cross the Terps 28-yard-line until the winning drive midway through the fourth quarter. Until then, Clemson's points came on a 53-yard field goal, a 98-yard kickoff return and a safety.
Yes, Clemson's young offense is but a shadow of its recent self. "Not even close," said Maryland defensive lineman Lubo Zizakovic. But the Terps defense didn't help. The Tigers couldn't score after a punt return set them up at the Terps 24 on their first series. They couldn't convert a fourth-and-two in the fourth quarter. "Everyone in the league better be ready for the Maryland defense," Clemson coach Ken Hatfield said.
The Tigers did drive 68 yards to the winning touchdown, but the big play, a 37-yard pass, came only after Krivak accepted a third-down penalty that, declined, probably would have led to a punt. Krivak admitted later that he'd forgotten that the penalty, for having an ineligible receiver downfield, no longer included a loss of down.
There was some debate over when the change in the rule was made -- and give Krivak credit for admitting his mistake -- but there should be no debating that the coach needs to know the rules. It is safe to say that the Terps probably would have won had Krivak declined the penalty, which he should have done.
Of course, they also probably would have won had center Mitch Suplee not fired a snap far over Zolak's head, giving Clemson the two points that ultimately were the margin of victory. And Clemson's Doug Thomas went untouched up the middle on his 98-yard kickoff return -- that's bad coverage.
So the Terps will have many ifs and maybes to mull, but they have only themselves to blame. If their offense had been able to convert more of its chances, the game wouldn't have been close. Clemson stopped two drives with interceptions inside the 10. The Terps reached the Clemson 27 and 22 on other drives, but managed only one field goal. It is a problem the offense has had in every game.
"We have a young offense, and they move the ball well," Whittier said, "but, as a defense, it does get frustrating [to watch them fail to score]. Tonight, over and over in your head, you'll be thinking that if they hadn't had that bad snap or run the kick back, we'd be 3-0 and ranked 15th in the country."
Such dreaming will hurt, and indeed, the game goes into the records as a steal. It's ironic. On a day that Krivak made a big mistake, one for which he should be criticized, his team demonstrated the kind of formidable substance for which he'd been searching. The Terps may have lost, but they aren't twerps anymore. They can play this game.