COLLEGE PARK -- Maryland has perfected this act, but it's one that Ron Vanderlinden should want no part of.
The Terps had an unhappy homecoming yesterday at Byrd Stadium, losing to Atlantic Coast Conference rival Clemson, 20-9. This defeat went just as the past two did. Maryland fell behind early, steadied itself to get into position to win, then collapsed.
The outcome clinched the sixth losing season in the 1990s for Maryland (2-6, 1-4) before it even got to November, and finally put to bed Vanderlinden's assertion that the Terps were capable of something big in his first season as coach.
"This is very frustrating, because we thought we were good enough to go to a bowl game," junior linebacker Kendall Ogle said. "We're not making the plays we need to make to win a game. Week after week, we find a way not to do it."
Ogle and strong safety Paul Jackson set up Maryland's only points with interceptions of Nealon Greene. The Terps' defense limited Clemson to a season-low 258 yards, but it was clueless on how to stop tailback Raymond Priester early or late. He gained 133 yards on the Tigers' touchdown drives that opened and closed the scoring.
The offense celebrated its first touchdown against Clemson in five years, but its longest drive consisted of a 46-yard "Hail Mary" pass at the end of the game. Fullback Matt Kalapinski and split end Kendrick Walton both got open in the end zone, but couldn't catch what would have been touchdown passes from Brian Cummings.
Throw in an erratic performance from freshman kicker Brian Kopka, who had an extra-point attempt blocked and missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt with two minutes remaining, and it was more than enough to let Clemson (4-3, 2-3) escape, just as West Virginia and Wake Forest had in Maryland's past two games.
The Tigers came in as sizable favorites, but the Terps took a 9-7 lead with 1: 52 remaining in the first half on a 4-yard run by freshman LaMont Jordan. Even that rare experience had its downside, when Kopka's conversion was blocked. Vanderlinden said the failure "was critical."
It allowed Clemson to go on top for good at 10-9 on Steve Richardson's 27-yard field goal with 4: 09 remaining in the third quarter. Two plays later, Cummings and Jordan botched a handoff, and Richardson quickly pushed the difference to 13-9 with a career-long 42-yard field goal.
The game was still Maryland's for the taking, but the Terps just couldn't finish anything in the fourth quarter.
With 13 minutes remaining, Walton got behind the Clemson coverage on third-and-nine from the Tigers' 34-yard line. He got two hands on a pass from Cummings, but cornerback Michael Allen was able to strip the ball.
On fourth down, Vanderlinden said that he waffled between his punt team and the field-goal unit. Kopka's group was in when the Terps were called for a delay-of-game penalty, but it didn't look so bad when cover man Troy Davidson downed Russ Edwards' punt at the Tigers' 6.
Clemson coach Tommy West installed a beefed-up passing game at the start of this season, but Maryland knew Priester was going to get the ball. After Greene faked out middle linebacker Eric Barton for 11 yards and a breathing-room first down, it was all Priester. He covered the next 81 yards on nine consecutive carries.
"We knew what was coming, we just didn't execute," Barton said of the crushing 94-yard drive. "We've got to learn to play a whole game. That proved costly."
Priester was just as dominant on the game's first possession, when the Tigers quickly moved 63 yards for a 7-0 lead.
"We come out, take the ball right down the field and score," West said. "Your thought process is that 'we're going to be here all day long,' and then it didn't go that way for us."
Jackson's interception set up a 19-yard field goal by Kopka, but the Terps could have had more than three points. They had a second-and-goal at the Clemson 2, but tailback Buddy Rodgers was stuffed on second down, and Kalapinski dropped Cummings' pass on third down.
"If that was thrown a little differently," Vanderlinden said, jokingly, "it would have stuck in his [Kalapinski's] face mask."
Maryland finally ended its five-year touchdown drought against Clemson later in the second quarter, thanks to Ogle's interception and a vintage scramble by Cummings. He eluded four pass-rushers and made a desperate toss to Jordan, who lugged it 22 yards down to the 4.
"I braced myself to get smacked," Cummings said. "I ducked, then I was off and running, and I found LaMont."
A freshman from Suitland, Jordan found the end zone on the next play. That touchdown raised the hopes of Maryland. Vanderlinden lamented that time is running out on his veterans, but to him, the big picture doesn't look that desperate.
"I know it looks like the same old, same old," Vanderlinden said. "I know it's getting old to a lot of people, but not to me. We stood toe to toe with a physical football team today."