COLLEGE PARK -- You couldn't accuse the Maryland Terrapins of ducking any issues after their 42-30 loss to Clemson yesterday at Byrd Stadium.
Coach Ron Vanderlinden confessed that he "made some decisions that turned out not to be good decisions as far as how to prepare" for Clemson's no-huddle offense.
Running back LaMont Jordan admitted that losing on a day when the Terps had so much to gain was "big."
And defensive end Peter Timmins, a senior team captain, raised the central issue of whether the Terps really are back despite having won four of six games.
"What kind of character do we have on this team? We're about to find out," Timmins said.
All the Terps had to do yesterday was win at home against a team with a losing record -- Clemson was 2-3 coming in -- and they would have gone to 5-1, probably landed in the Top 25 and become a serious bowl contender.
"I think we were on cloud nine," Timmins said.
But they allowed Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler, making only his third career start, to have a day a Heisman Trophy candidate would envy, compiling 252 yards passing and 183 yards rushing.
"Dantzler looked really good," Vanderlinden said, "but our inability to tackle him was really frustrating. We had our hands on him a lot."
The result was a defeat that left the Terps at a crossroads: Having fallen off cloud nine, what do they do now?
"Are we going to pull the same old Maryland bull? We're about to see," Timmins said. "If we're serious about making this into a new program, a better program with higher goals, we should mourn this defeat for a day and then come back hard. We still have five games left, all our goals in front of us and a lot of time left.
"The fans sense there's a difference, I think. I didn't see them leaving early today, like in past years. They were with us to the end today, thinking we could come back. That's good. But now we have to bounce back from losing and prove what kind of team we have."
Actually, it's pretty clear what kind of team they have -- one that's vastly more talented and improved from the Maryland teams that went 27-61 from 1991-98. The offense was potent again yesterday, with Jordan delivering 177 yards and four touchdowns in a major-league performance. He's a star. And as miserable as the defense was yesterday, it's still improved from prior years.
The Terps have shown so much overall improvement in 1999, in fact, that alumni who were praying for a five-win season in August had begun talking about bowl bids.
Too much too soon? Maybe. That's why, perversely, some in the athletic department probably weren't sorry to see yesterday's loss. Nothing can strangle a program faster than unrealistic expectations.
It's a victory in itself that the program has taken a palpable step forward in Vanderlinden's third season, and that the future obviously is getting brighter. But a bowl bid? Coming off last year's 3-8 season? Let's slow down a little.
Given how low the Terps had fallen, and also that they still have back-to-back road games left at Florida State and North Carolina State in November, a winning season probably is a more realistic and legitimate goal. The Terps likely would have to win two of their remaining three home games against North Carolina, Duke and Virginia -- no lock by any means, but certainly possible.
Anything less than 6-5 would be disappointing after a 4-1 start that included a blowout of West Virginia. And anything more would be, well, probably a trip to a minor bowl such as the fabled Micron PC Bowl.
"All of our goals are still right there and very attainable," Terps quarterback Calvin McCall said yesterday. "All we have to do is bounce back from this, which is what good teams do."
But bouncing back won't be easy. The defense will have to get over being humbled by a mobile quarterback for the second time in three games. Dantzler actually did more damage than Georgia Tech's Heisman candidate, Joe Hamilton, who blistered the Terps in late September.
"But there's no comparison between the two [quarterbacks], really," Timmins said. "Joe Hamilton is a magician. He pulls tricks out of a hat. Dantzler wasn't pulling anything out of a hat."
In other words, the Terps should have fared better. Vanderlinden took the blame, claiming he "really erred" in not using an active, athletic quarterback to challenge the defense in practices leading up to the game. And the defense admitted to feeling ill-prepared for Dantzler's scrambling.
"They did the exact opposite of what we thought they'd do," Timmins said.
But the offense played well enough to win, and the defense shouldn't have nearly so much to contend with next week against North Carolina, which is 1-5 after losing at home to Houston yesterday.
"We're going to keep our heads up," Vanderlinden said.
The Carolina game will amount to a replay of yesterday's circumstances, with the Terps having a chance to prosper at home against a losing team.
It's a second chance, in other words, a rare chance to gain back what was lost yesterday.
To say what they're longing to say about themselves in 1999, the Terps need to get it right this time.
Next for Maryland
Opponent: North Carolina
Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park
When: Saturday, 1 p.m.
Record: 1-5 Yesterday: Lost to Houston, 20-12.