COLLEGE PARK, Md. | If coach Dabo Swinney thought scrutiny last week of Clemson's progress was premature and harsh, he's got another thing coming.
Judging by the redness of his eyes and the hurt in his voice following Saturday's 24-21 meltdown at Maryland, Swinney sensed it, too.
The frustration in tight end Michael Palmer's words and the curt demeanor of running back C.J. Spiller afterward also were giveaways - likewise an apt description for an embarrassing defeat in which Clemson's struggling offense failed to tie or win the game in three golden opportunities in the final six minutes.
The emotive displays embodied the frustration these Tigers (2-3, 1-2 ACC) know all to well, having traveled this path of unforgivable losses and unmet expectations on a seemingly annual basis.
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"Everybody's stunned," Spiller said. "We're stunned, Clemson fans are stunned, but it is what it is."
The panic button on Clemson's season was pushed Saturday.
For the third time in four years, the Tigers were dealt a crushing blow by the heavy underdog Terps (2-3, 1-0), who limped in turnover-prone, defensively deficient and coming off a pair of humiliating defeats.
The difference was that Clemson entered the 2006 and '08 meetings with Maryland as a fragile team; this time, it was the Terps who delivered the shock-inducing blow, putting the Tigers in desperation mode in the Atlantic Division race.
And there is no simpler reason than their inability to win close contests - five of Swinney's six losses as coach have come by a touchdown or less, including all three this season.
"Greatly disappointed in where we are right now," Swinney said. "There's not a player or coach who felt we'd be here, 2-3 after five ballgames. It's a football game we had so many opportunities to win, and that's my job to get us the win, bottom line. Just a poor job by me."
"It's a painful thing when you put so much into something and you don't reach your goal. These kids are hurting, but they'll bounce back. That's what we're going to do. That's all we can do."
That, and perhaps use this week's open date to go back to the drawing board offensively.
Clemson's offense has scored two touchdowns the past 12 quarters - as many as its special teams.
And its easiest to blame the unit's futility for Saturday's defeat.
"We have to be tougher mentally, make some better decisions and just grow up," Palmer said.
Trailing 24-21, the Tigers had the ball in Maryland territory four times during the final 10 minutes and came away scoreless. The Terps, meanwhile, gave them every opportunity to atone, turning over the ball on downs at their 30 with 5:59 remaining on a failed quarterback sneak, then losing a fumble on the first play of their ensuing drive with 3:54 to go.
But Clemson couldn't capitalize. After taking over on downs, Spiller stumbled with plenty of room to run on a screen pass, and kicker Richard Jackson missed a 47-yard field goal to the right.
After the fumble, the Tigers failed to gain a first down and Jackson missed right again on a 48-yarder with 2:43 to go.
Clemson regained possession at its 30 with 1:30 left and, three Palmer catches later, was positioned at the Maryland 32.
But with no timeouts and facing third-and-6 from the Terps' 28, quarterback Kyle Parker was blind-sided on a delayed blitz. Replay determined Parker fumbled the ball away, precluding the Tigers from attempting a 58-yard field goal as time would have expired.
All told, once it reached the Maryland 32 on its final three drives, Clemson lost 11 yards on nine plays.
"I'm embarrassed for us because the defense gave us the ball multiple times right there at the end, and we didn't get it done," Spiller said. "Didn't even move the ball. We can't ride their coattails the whole season."
Swinney's challenge suddenly becomes making the season relevant.
"I certainly didn't plan for this," he said. "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, then go on to the next one. That's what we're going to do."