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October 26, 2013

On the rebound

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Dabo Swinney always says the fun is in the winning, and for a while Saturday it looked as if Clemson was going to put that theory to a severe test.

Heck, even victory alone seemed in real peril for far longer than most expected on a cold afternoon in College Park.

In the end, there were smiles on the sidelines as the Tigers put the finishing touches on their seventh victory of the season. The final score of 40-27 seemed something close to what was anticipated going in, but it didn't tell the story of just how much sweat went into this one.

"Our defense responded, and our team responded," Swinney said. "It's not easy to win, and it's definitely not easy to go on the road and win."

This had been identified as a dangerous game since the ACC released its schedule months ago, in part because of Maryland's offensive talent and in part because everyone knew it'd be difficult for Clemson to recover seven days after facing Florida State regardless of result.

Last week's stunning annihilation at the hands of the Seminoles presented the Tigers with the unexpected task of flushing not just an emotional win or loss, but trying to recover from a complete and total embarrassment.

Maryland's epic run of injuries produced a popular belief that the Tigers would roll without much resistance. Swinney knew better because he knew how much his team was hurting. He pulled out all the motivational stops for this one, giving his players tennis balls earlier in the week to symbolize a team that bounces back from a big fall instead of falling apart (like an egg) or suffering internal bruising (like an apple).

Who knows what might have happened in this game had Maryland not been missing an assortment of key players on both sides of the ball, including quarterback C.J. Brown, receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, and running back Brandon Ross. The Tigers don't have to worry about the other side's problems. They did what they had to do to win and move on to next week's trip to Virginia, even if it was far from pretty on offense for most of the day.

When Tajh Boyd ran in on a power play from 5 yards out with 13 minutes left in the game, it didn't just give the Tigers much-needed breathing room at 26-13. It also presented a return to how the offense used to do things before a miserable stretch that spanned more than two-and-a-half games.

For much of last season and the first five games of this season, red-zone success seemed almost a given for the Tigers. But a trend of missed scoring opportunities began in the first half against Boston College, (three points), continued before halftime against Florida State (seven points), and then seemed to become a chronic condition for a while at Maryland.

Clemson had a chance to put it away early with lengthy drives on its first three possessions but had to settle for field goals on drives that penetrated Maryland's 16-yard line - and one that fizzled after first-and-goal from the 2. The Tigers even had to punt on a possession that reached the Terps' 25 after a sack and an intentional grounding penalty.

Before a touchdown pass from Boyd to Jordan Leggett late in the first half, Clemson had totaled 46 first downs in the first half of its previous three games … and scored 19 points.

And when things seemed to be on the verge of meltdown mode with the second and third drives of the second half ending with lost fumbles by Sammy Watkins and Rod McDowell on the first play of both possessions, it's a good thing the defense rose up and kept Maryland from registering a first down. The Terps settled for field goals on both occasions, and, combined with Jayron Kearse's end-zone interception that denied Maryland points early in the second quarter, the defense earned some extra paw stickers for its helmets.

"That was the difference in the game, because it could have really hurt us," Swinney said of the two third-quarter stops. "That's why you practice red-zone defense. You either get a turnover or you hold them to a field-goal attempt. That's our philosophy."

Maryland totaled 364 yards on 70 plays and wasn't able to fulfill its plan to run the clock and play keep-away from Clemson's offense. The Terps converted just 5 third downs on 17 opportunities, mustered 82 yards rushing, and committed four turnovers.

The Terps' biggest turnover -- and the pivotal point of the game -- came after a Clemson punt early in the fourth quarter with the Tigers nursing a 19-13 lead. Bashaud Breeland forced a fumble by running back Albert Reid, and Spencer Shuey recovered to set the offense up at Maryland's 22-yard line. The Tigers had punted on their previous two possessions after settling for yet another field goal following first-and-goal from the 7, but this time they reached the end zone on the shoulders of their leader.

Boyd's confidence had been severely shaken by what happened against Boston College and Florida State, and before this one he told ESPN that football had become stressful and "like a job." On top of that, an injury to his left knee suffered early hindered him and basically wiped away the quarterback run game from Chad Morris' arsenal.

Morris decided to ride his most proven red-zone weapon on this possession, and it paid off. Boyd kept for 13 yards, then on second-and-goal from the 5 he ran power up the middle for the touchdown that put the Tigers up 13.

Scoring runs of 3 and 45 yards by McDowell put the Tigers at the 40-point mark for the first time since Oct. 5 at Syracuse. For all its struggles, Clemson's offense finished with 551 yards on 98 plays.

Running between the tackles was seldom easy, but Clemson finished with 236 yards on the ground (161 by McDowell on 30 carries). Maryland was allowing just 123 per game.

"Really proud of how we ran the football," Swinney said. "Nobody has really run the ball on this team effectively."

Boyd, who had the three first-half turnovers against Florida State, was 28 for 41 passing for 304 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"Tajh had a great night," Swinney said. "I thought he came back and played tremendous."

McDowell atoned for his fumble, and so did Watkins. The junior receiver finished with 14 catches for 163 yards and played with purpose and aggression.

"Sammy was relentless," Swinney said.

McDowell said afterward that the win "takes the program to the next notch" and "shows we're not the old Clemson."

That might be a tad strong, but this win did show the Tigers can rebound when just about everything seems to be going against them.

"That's what great competitors do," Swinney said. "They respond."

*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.

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