COLLEGE PARK — Maryland entered Saturday night beset by injuries on defense and counting on a speedy new starting quarterback and five starting freshmen on its homecoming night at Byrd Stadium.
The Terps hoped to make their fans forget about all those storylines -- about all the transition in this first season of a coaching change -- by upsetting No. 8 Clemson.
The Terps used the running and passing of quarterback C.J. Brown to lead by 18 points in the third quarter. But Maryland couldn't keep up with Clemson receiver-returner Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington as the undefeated Tigers produced a series of big plays in the second half to defeat the Terps, 56-45.
Maryland (2-4, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) which had led 35-17, flirted with recording the biggest win of coach Randy Edsall's first season. Brown, taking off on option runs in his first start, rushed 22 times for 162 yards.
"I thought we had them on the ropes," Maryland defensive tackle Joe Vellano said.
With 11:26 remaining, Clemson (7-0, 4-0) took its first lead since the opening possession. The Tigers drove 80 yards, capped by Jaron Brown's 12-yard reception -- quarterback Tajh Boyd's fourth touchdown pass of the game -- to make it 42-38.
Maryland -- energized by a crowd of an announced 47,961 -- drove 66 yards to regain the lead, 45-42, on tight end Matt Furstenburg's 32-yard touchdown catch with 7:35 left.
But Watkins returned the ensuing kickoff 89 yards, putting Clemson in front 49-45 with 7:24 left. It was the freshman star's third touchdown. For the game, Watkins had 345 all-purpose yards, a Clemson record. His exploits recalled those of former Tigers star C.J. Spiller, now with the Buffalo Bills.
Maryland safety Eric Franklin said the Terps hadn't seen anybody as quick as Watkins. The only player he could think to compare Watkins to was West Virginia receiver-returner Tavon Austin (Dunbar).
Trailing by four points, Maryland (2-4, 1-2) reached the Clemson 41-yard line before Brown's fourth-and-9 pass fell incomplete with about six minutes left. Ellington (24 carries for 212 yards) ran for a 44-yard touchdown to make it 56-45 with 3:55 left.
Clemson had 576 yards of total offense.
Maryland started five freshmen -- its most since 1993. First-year players were substituting for key defensive starters, including linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield, the team's leading tackler who injured his leg last week. Linebacker Kenny Tate, whose right leg was heavily wrapped, was also sidelined for the second week in a row.
"We had a lot of young guys that stepped up," Vellano said. "The No. 8 team in the country? Last year, [the freshmen] were playing against high-school teams."
Edsall said the Terps sustained more injuries. He declined to discuss them yet. He said of the game overall: "It's a tough one. We just had to go out and finish the game."
The most noticeable substitution came at quarterback.
Longtime Maryland starter Danny O'Brien had a headset on and a white towel slung over his shoulders as Brown trotted onto the field to start the game. O'Brien signaled in plays.
O'Brien had started the past 15 games, dating to early last season. He was poised and accurate last season but had struggled this year. The offense looked very different Saturday night under Brown. He often faked handoffs, then took off the other way -- a form of misdirection that sometimes fooled Clemson's defense. In one second-quarter series, Brown kept on four of five plays. Sometimes he started to run, then pitched out, option-style.
Brown is a former Pennsylvania high school basketball player who has been clocked at 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash and can do a 360-degree dunk. His father, Clark, is a former Michigan State quarterback.
"I'm tired," Brown, who rushed for 162 yards, the most by a quarterback in school history, said after the game. "I had the nerves, I had the energy and it felt good to get out there and show what I can do."
Brown said Clemson tried to adjust to his running in the second half by lying in wait for him.
"The D-line kind of stopped rushing," he said.
Led by Brown, Maryland took advantage of two Clemson turnovers in taking a 28-17 lead at the half.
With Clemson leading 3-0, Watkins muffed a punt and Austin Walker recovered for the Terps on the Tigers' 9-yard line. Davin Meggett scored on a 9-yard run two plays later.
The Terps used the second Clemson turnover to increase their lead to 14-3. Cornerback Cameron Chism stepped in front of receiver DeAndre Hopkins and took the interception 46 yards with 2:23 left in the first quarter. It was Chism's second touchdown on an interception return of the season.
Watkins returned the kickoff 70 yards to the Maryland 30. Four plays later, Ellington made it 14-10 on a 3-yard run with one minute to play in the first quarter.
But Maryland drove 70 yards and made it 21-10 on Brown's 7-yard swing pass to Meggett.
Brown ran 21 yards up the middle to make it 28-10 with 8:38 left in the half. It was his seventh rush of the game, and he already had 70 yards.