COLLEGE PARK, Md. | DABO SWINNEY LOOKED tired. Worn out and beaten. He appeared as if he had experienced 20 seasons of bad endings to Clemson football games, instead of the handful that have come his way in what amounts to one full season as a head coach. Swinney looked old - 59 instead of 39.
It is possible Swinney aged a couple of decades during Saturday's excruciatingly painful loss to a less-talented, going-nowhere Maryland club at Byrd Stadium.
It is one thing to lose down-to-the-wire decisions to nationally ranked opponents Georgia Tech and TCU, quite another to fall short against an unranked opponent that previously lost to Middle Tennessee State and whose only win came against James Madison - in overtime, no less.
What became agonizingly clear Saturday was that Swinney has not yet taught his team how to win, how to be a championship club. Twelve games into his Clemson coaching career, Swinney finds himself where his predecessor, Tommy Bowden, found himself throughout most of his 10 seasons.
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Year after year, Bowden's teams came up short. If it was not a key loss against an inferior opponent, it was a crucial play that cost his team against a ranked opponent. Seven of Clemson's past nine losses over the past two seasons have been by a touchdown or less. Five of Swinney's six defeats as coach are by a touchdown or less.
Until Swinney figures out how to mold Clemson into a winner, he will continue to age before our eyes. Again and again he will trudge to midfield after a loss, as he did Saturday for the perfunctory postgame handshake, this time with Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen.
Then Swinney again will face the media and attempt to explain away Clemson's woes. Following Saturday's loss, it was a matter of figuring out how a season of promise is essentially lost after five weeks.
He said a litany of mistakes - from special-teams gaffes to costly penalties to clock mismanagement - played a part in Clemson's record dropping to 2-3. Swinney then did what good coaches do - he shouldered the blame.
"That comes with it," Swinney said, recognizing that a wave of criticism is headed his way from Clemson loyalists. "You get in this business, you get a lot of credit and you get a lot of blame.
"The blame should come to me. The criticism should come to me. Don't blame those kids. Don't criticize our kids. Put it all on me. I'll handle it. I'll deal with it."
Quarterback Kyle Parker admitted it was difficult to express the team's disappointment following the loss, which hardly could be pinned on his performance. He was 20-of-37 passing for 180 yards. Yet Parker's showing from week to week might best represent the team in that he did not look any better in week five than he did in week one.
The lack of the team's improvement from week to week has to be disconcerting to the coaching staff, and disheartening to Parker and his teammates.
"It's tough coming in here and losing the way we did, especially the way we started out fast-paced and on top," said Parker, who directed the offense to 141 yards in the first quarter and 133 yards thereafter. "We think we have it, and then just let it slip away. It makes you feel sick."
No one is more ill about the situation than Swinney.
"It's little things. It's finishing plays," Swinney said. "It's critical penalties, missed tackles, things that we've got to coach them better. It's simple as that."
Clemson's opening two series of the second half were telling. On the first series, the Tigers managed 8 yards. On the next, Parker was sacked for a 13-yard loss, threw an incomplete pass, and C.J. Spiller gained 2 yards. Then Dawson Zimmerman's shanked punt of 34 yards was returned 43 yards to the Clemson 1.
To put it nicely, Clemson's defense melted down at the end of the first half when the Tigers could not hold a 13-3 lead, instead yielding drives of 76 yards on nine plays and 81 yards on nine plays mostly due to missed tackles and busted assignments.
Those kinds of miscues can be corrected. But no one can wipe away the disappointing start to this season, one that has admittedly caught Swinney by surprise.
"Very surprised," Swinney said. "I certainly didn't plan for this, but that's where we are. There ain't a dad-gum thing I can do about it right now except get ready for Wake Forest and see if we can win a ballgame and go to the next one..
"You can quit or you can keep working to try to get better. I'm going to keep working to get better to see if I can get this football team better prepared, better coached and win a ballgame."
If not, the bags are likely to swell under Swinney's eyes. He might look more and more like Father Time than the youthful, exuberant coach who took charge of this program one year ago.