COLLEGE PARK - They all came down. First the students, then the oranges, then the goal posts at Byrd Stadium, where 13th-ranked Maryland scored a 37-20 win over Clemson last night, putting the team in prime position for a Bowl Championship Series berth when the regular season ends.
With only North Carolina State left to conquer next week, the Terrapins (9-1, 6-1 ACC) have already clinched a share of their first Atlantic Coast Conference title since 1985, thanks to Florida State's 34-28 loss to the Wolfpack yesterday afternoon.
So, on an evening when Maryland forced four turnovers by Clemson (5-4, 3-4) and got two touchdowns from senior tailback Marc Riley, it only made sense that its fans among a sellout crowd of 52,462 would go crazy enough to render even first-year head coach Ralph Friedgen helpless.
He stood on a podium at the northwest corner of the stadium, flanked by two state troopers, as the students kept crashing into security guards until they got through to the east goal posts, then the west goal posts before attempting to carry both out toward the practice fields.
Friedgen and two of the seniors near him - Riley and Melvin Fowler - tried to start singing the school fight song, as they had after each of the other six wins at home. (The seven home wins are a school record.) But it never worked out, except for once.
"I turned around to a couple [and said] `just calm down,' " Friedgen recalled. "They did. I was shocked."
If only on a small scale, the coach's persuasive skills worked, starting with his delivery of the news that Florida State had just lost its first ACC home game, echoing the scenario of Sept. 22 when the Seminoles had just lost to North Carolina. It allowed Maryland a shot at the ACC lead heading into its game with Wake Forest.
Once again, the news - and the pressure that came along with it - did not seem to halt the Terrapins one bit, as they took a 24-6 lead in the third quarter and survived a minimal scare for their first win over Clemson since 1992.
Needing only a win next Saturday to win the ACC title and a probable spot in either the Orange Bowl Jan. 2 or Gator Bowl Jan. 1 is pretty heady stuff for a team that has not been to a bowl since 1990 and has had only two winning seasons over the previous 15 years.
"We started thinking ACC championship before we walked out on that field," said Maryland senior receiver Guilian Gary, who had five catches for 93 yards and one touchdown in his final home game. He said the first sellout crowd at Byrd Stadium in six years and fourth-largest ever was a huge factor.
"Everybody was there for a reason and that was to see us become ACC champions," he said.
Maryland's defense will get a good deal of the credit for beating the Tigers, and there's a case to be made for it. The league's third-ranked defense had the task of stopping quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, who has had electrifying performances in all three of his road games this season, averaging 412 yards of total offense before yesterday.
But led by linebacker E.J. Henderson - who had 13 tackles, including four for losses - the Terps dominated the run-pass threat and limited Dantzler's teammates as well. Maryland picked up four interceptions, two of which led to scores that turned a competitive game into a rout.
The third interception came when Henderson snared a deflected pass, setting up a 20-yard field goal by Nick Novak to give Maryland a 27-6 lead with 12:22 left.
Except for a 116-yard output in a 38-3 loss to North Carolina, Dantzler's 183 yards of total offense represented his worst performance of the season.
"We always got a lot of pressure on him. Someone was always in his face," Henderson said.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose Tigers had outscored Maryland 214-56 in winning eight straight since 1992, pulled Dantzler at the beginning of the fourth quarter for Willie Simmons, but it made no difference.
On his fourth play, Simmons threw an interception that Randall Jones ran back to the Clemson 1, setting up Riley's second touchdown for a 34-6 edge with 10:49 left.
The Terps moved the ball well early, including 263 first-half yards out of their 407 overall.
Gary had catches of 24 and 18 yards - the latter one a one-hander on third-and-six - as part of a 10-play, 79-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard run by Riley that opened the scoring with 10:38 left in the first quarter.
After a 26-yard field goal by Clemson's Aaron Hunt narrowed the margin at 5:57, neither team generated much offense. The Tigers, sensing a possible edge with freshman Domonique Foxworth (Western Tech) playing his first college game in place of cornerback Dennard Wilson, tried to have Dantzler go deep but failed.
Meanwhile, the Tigers had no success running the ball aside from Dantzler, but even he struggled toward the end of the first quarter.