Despite a three-game losing streak and a seemingly never-ending string of depth-sapping injuries — the latest including the team's top offensive and defensive playmakers — Maryland enters the toughest stretch of its 2012 schedule with something it lacked a year ago: cohesion.
Maryland (4-5, 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) was likely not going to beat No. 10 Clemson (8-1, 5-1) in Death Valley Saturday with either freshman wide receiver Stefon Diggs or senior linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield healthy and on the field at Memorial Stadium.
Diggs, who leads the Terps in receiving and scoring, was ruled out Thursday night with an ankle injury. Hartsfield, the team's leading tackler, sustained a season-ending ACL injury in last week's 33-13 home loss to Georgia Tech.
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Littlejohn Coliseum, 1 Avenue of Champions, Clemson, SC 29632, USA
That the Terps might not have enough healthy bodies to keep the score respectable — something they couldn't do with reserve freshman linebacker Shawn Petty making his first start, at quarterback no less, against the Yellow Jackets — doesn't seem to faze them.
"It's all in terms of how you approach adversity," Maryland coach Randy Edsall said during the ACC teleconference this week. "And we have the mindset here that we can only control what we can control. When somebody goes down, everybody has to rally that much more around each other and everybody has to do a little bit more themselves and go out and work a little bit harder and encourage the other guys.
"That's really what you have to do. You have to stay close and you have to stay together. I think that's probably been the truest measure for this group. You can see that they are a team. They are not individuals. They believe in themselves and they believe in each other. They want each other to do well, and it's like it's a test."
This is a different kind of test that the Terps faced in Edsall's first season, which finished with eight straight defeats after a 2-2 start. There were injuries to key players, but much of the turmoil was the result of an unhappy group unable to adjust to the new coach's rules and the rigidity used in enforcing them.
"Everybody's all in, everybody's working hard in practice, nobody's going in their own direction, we're pulling from the same rope and all that," senior defensive tackle Joe Vellano said Wednesday. "Coach Edsall is in a tough situation, with all the injuries, but the only way to get out of it is to stay together. We have three big league games coming up for the younger guys to get experience."
After Clemson, Maryland finishes the season with a home game a week from Saturday against Florida State and a road game Nov. 24 against North Carolina.
But the Terps are not looking at a visit to Death Valley as simply the beginning of a death knell on a season that once held a better-than-average chance of Maryland becoming bowl-eligible and now will be likely remembered for playing a linebacker at quarterback.
Vellano has the memory of Maryland beating Clemson his freshman year when the Terps won only two games, of losing a close game at Clemson as a sophomore as well as what happened last year at Byrd Stadium.
Maryland built an 18-point lead in the third quarter and was still ahead by three points with 7 ½ minutes left before running out of steam in a wild 56-45 loss.
"It definitely gives you confidence. They were a big team coming in here last year, and we stuck it to them and played them pretty tough into the fourth quarter and had a chance to win," said Vellano, himself listed as questionable with an ankle injury. "That's kind of the thing we're going with this week. Play tough on 'D,' see if we can give the offense short fields and let the atmosphere motivate us."
Redshirt sophomore cornerback Jeremiah Johnson doesn't have the same memories as Vellano and other more experienced teammates, but looks at the task of beating the Tigers on Frank Howard Field "as motivation."
"You're going to play a top 10 team and from a defensive standpoint, it's an opportunity to show what we have done well this season," Johnson said. "You have the mentality that you can still pull out the win."
Maryland (4-5, 2-3 in the ACC) @ Clemson (8-1, 5-1)
Site: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
Time: 3:30 p.m.
TV: ESPNU Radio: 105.7 FM, 980 AM
Maryland offense vs. Clemson defense: After a shaky start, converted linebacker Shawn Petty played much better at quarterback in the second half of last week's 33-13 loss at home to Georgia Tech, completing 8 of 12 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns (and one interception). But Petty will go into his second start — against a better team and a tougher environment — without leading receiver Stefon Diggs and leading rusher Wes Brown, both of whom were injured against the Yellow Jackets and won't play against the Tigers. Redshirt freshman Brandon Ross, who rushed for 66 yards on 12 carries against Georgia Tech, will likely share the ball-carrying responsibilities with freshman Albert Reid and sophomore Justus Pickett. The Terps are down to three healthy wide-outs.
Maryland defense vs. Clemson offense: Despite a rushing defense ranked in the top 10, the Terps were gouged for 401 yards overall against Georgia Tech's triple-option. Though Maryland will face a more traditional scheme this Saturday, stopping the Tigers will be equally, if not more, daunting with leading tackler Demetrius Hartsfield now out for the season with a knee injury, and others who will play, including All-ACC defensive tackle Joe Vellano, banged up. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd ranks fourth in the country in passing efficiency with 25 touchdowns to only nine interceptions and a nearly 68 percent completion percentage. The Terps still rank a more than respectable 11th overall defensively, 18th against the run (110.1) and 20th against the pass (191.6).
— DON MARKUS