Special teams gaffes doom Terps in 31-7 loss to Clemson

October 16, 2010 | Luke Jones

Despite an encouraging 4-1 start and an opportunity to end a nine-game road losing streak against a struggling team on Saturday, we didn’t know how improved the Maryland Terrapins really were in comparison to last season’s 2-10 squad.

A soft schedule — with only a victory over Navy passing as a respectable feat — caused most to wait and see how well Ralph Friedgen’s team would play during a trip to Death Valley to take on the Clemson Tigers, the last place they had won on the road in over two years. And despite a hostile environment at Memorial Stadium, it looked like a win for the taking with the Tigers having lost three in a row.

But if the ugly 31-7 loss was any indication, the Terps are far more similar to last year’s team than any of us had hoped. Despite looking like the better football team midway through the second quarter and outgaining the Tigers by 137 yards for the game, the Terps did exactly what we saw countless times in 2009.

Shot themselves in the foot. Repeatedly.

It started with special teams.

The facet of the game that invigorates your football team as quickly as it can suck the very life out of it doomed the Terps as they dropped to 4-2 (1-1 ACC) on the year. Ironically, Maryland had received major lifts from the special teams units in their first five games, particularly from punter-kicker Travis Baltz and punt returner Tony Logan.

The first gaffe occurred immediately after running back Da’Rel Scott tossed a 4-yard touchdown to quarterback Danny O’Brien — no, you didn’t read that incorrectly — to give Maryland a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. Nick Ferrara’s ensuing kickoff was a low, line drive that was returned 87 yards for a touchdown by Clemson running back Andre Ellington.

It only got worse from there.

In the ensuing drive, O’Brien moved the Terps down to the Clemson 7 before being  sacked by Da’Quan Bowers — a common theme as the defensive end compiled three for the day as the Maryland offensive line really couldn’t block anyone — on third-and-1. The previously reliable Baltz came in to attempt the 33-yarder and missed badly to the right.

From that point on, the momentum shifted dramatically in favor of the Tigers, and Maryland barely voiced a whimper the remainder of the afternoon.

Later, Clemson’s Jaron Brown returned a punt 41 yards down to the Maryland 20 after the Terps went three-and-out to set up another touchdown, pushing the lead into blowout territory at 24-7.

Those three gaffes led to a 17-point swing on the scoreboard, which happened to be the deficit for much of the second half before Xavier Brewer returned an O’Brien interception 61 yards for a score late in the fourth quarter after the outcome had long been decided.

The reality is Maryland had an excellent opportunity to beat a not-so-good football team on the road and couldn’t get the job done. Despite looking like the better football team for the first 20-plus minutes of the contest, the Terps couldn’t recover from critical errors, even when they had opportunities to do so on both sides of the football.

To be fair, the special teams weren’t the only reason Maryland dropped its first conference game of the season, as missed tackles on third down, dropped passes, and critical penalties were themes of the afternoon, particularly in the second half.

An offense that looked promising in the first half managed just 118 yards and three turnovers after the intermission, unable to provide a lift to a defense that wasn’t as bad as the final score indicated. However, the unit’s inability to make tackles in several favorable spots allowed the Tigers to pick up key first downs in the second half.

Time and time again, the Terps drove the nails into their own coffin in Death Valley.

Watching them disintegrate over the game’s final 40 minutes was a clear reminder of how quickly things can fall apart. The talent isn’t there for this Maryland team to overcome mistakes, and Clemson made them pay for it in embarrassing fashion.

This one will really cause Friedgen and his football team to lose sleep, as there was really no excuse to lose by 24 points to a mediocre football team that managed just 213 yards of offense on the afternoon.

But when it came to special teams and doing the little things needed to get a victory, Clemson beat Maryland like a drum all over the field.

And the Terps could only look helplessly at the scoreboard as they walked off the field, with memories of the losses from last season fresh in their minds.

As good as the 4-1 start may have felt, Saturday’s performance was a very harsh reality.

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