|Rex Brown/Getty Images|
|Cullen Harper was 15-of-22 for 151 yards against Maryland.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
CLEMSON, S.C. -- They started to leave before the game was over, a steady stream of downtrodden fans who trudged up the very same hill the Clemson players had stood on before the game, beating their chests wildly.
Now, the Tigers can join their fans in that uphill climb. That is, if the fans are still with them.
The secret has been out now for five weeks: Clemson is not the No. 9-ranked team many thought it was heading into the preseason. The expectations were too high, and those within the program will admit it. The one team shouldering an entire conference's hopes of having a representative win the big games on the national stage already has two losses and it's not even October.
But Clemson, with all of its talented playmakers, is still capable of more than it has shown -- even with a depleted offensive line -- and the Tigers' 20-17 loss is just the latest evidence of the program's ability to underachieve.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said it wasn't what Maryland did. Running back James Davis said it's not a question of talent. And offensive coordinator Rob Spence said it wasn't for a lack of effort. Quarterback Cullen Harper said it wasn't the game plan.
Then what, on Earth, is the problem with Clemson?
Against Alabama the Tigers were unprepared. Against Maryland they were undisciplined. They only had six penalties for 50 yards, but they came at the most inopportune times. And when you can't get 10 inches on a fourth down with Davis and C.J. Spiller on your team, you can't win.
"You've got to be able to make that to be a good team," said Bowden, who chose to go with the quarterback sneak that worked against NC State. "It was literally 10 inches."
Bowden had an answer for everything. No downfield passes when Maryland was stopping the run in the second half? They tried one and it was intercepted.
Six carries for Davis and four for Spiller in the second half?
"I just don't think you can go out there and run the ball up and down the field and just move it and score at will when you play good teams," he said.
Clemson, though, should have been the better team. There are record setters in every phase of the game. Clemson now has two 2,000-yard rushers on its roster. Do you know how many coaches in the country would be willing to make a trade? For one? Receiver Aaron Kelly is eighth on the ACC's top 10 list for career receptions with 190. Harper passed the 4,000-yard mark. All of that offensive ability and they had just 112 total yards in the second half.
"I think we're playing as hard as we can," Spence said. "I think we're playing as hard as we can, and I can't define that as underachieving. We're doing the best we can. We struggled obviously in critical situations today."
This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone considering this stat: Clemson, when ranked, has lost to an unranked team at home seven times now since 2000. All under Bowden.
"Surely it's discouraging, there's disappointment from the players, and the fans are disappointed," he said of the loss. "It'll be a long 10 days or two weeks, whatever we've got till the next game, but that's the way this sport is."
At Clemson, yes, it is.
"We've gotta pull something from somewhere," Davis said. "We've got the players, we've got the playmakers, but we have to be able to execute. We just couldn't get anything done in the second half. It was very surprising. I thought we'd score at least one touchdown in the second half, but with the penalties and everything, man, and the holding, it messed us up a lot. We couldn't really get any momentum after that."
Harper said it's too early to count Clemson out, as the Tigers still have their sights set on their first ACC title since 1991.
"We've just got stay positive and make sure everybody knows the season is not over," Harper said. "We can't call it quits just because we got beat in one ACC game. Last year, we had a chance to win the ACC at the end of the stretch, and if we continue to get better we'll have that chance this year."
Problem is, they didn't win it at the end of last season, either.