As they celebrated their highest-scoring first half of the season on their sideline, the Terps were like the Whos in Whoville who keep singing after the Grinch steals their Christmas. Maryland rolled up three touchdowns in 34 seconds spanning the second and third quarters, all but silencing the Tar Heels fans.
But Maryland's moment was not destined to last — not in a year in which the Terps lost 10 players to season-ending injuries and dropped their last six games. Led by quarterback Bryn Renner (five touchdown passes, tying a school record), the Tar Heels scored 24 straight points to win, 48-38, before an announced 44,000 on their senior day.
“There is a lot of hurt in that locker room,” said an emotional Maryland coach Randy Edsall, who singled out his 17 seniors before the game and told them “to get us a win.”
Said Edsall: “They came oh-so-close.”
Edsall, completing his second Maryland season, is fond of saying that his team will never show “quit,” and the Terps seemed determined Saturday to prove him right.
Afterward, Edsall told the players “how much he loved us and how unfair it was for the stuff that we've been through this year,” said senior defensive lineman A.J. Francis, who made three tackles in his final game. “He said nobody in the history of football has ever gone through what we went through this year injury-wise, and probably nobody ever will. These guys are going to be good next year. I know that for a fact.”
After managing 304 yards of offense in the first half, the Terps (4-8, 2-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) were held to minus-7 yards in the decisive third quarter.
“It was like two different games in the first half and the second half,” said Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora, whose team finished tied for the ACC's Coastal Division lead but is ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
Maryland quickly trailed 14-0 after North Carolina (8-4, 5-3 ACC) scored on drives lasting just 42 and 31 seconds in the first quarter. The Terps appeared to be in for another dismal afternoon against a North Carolina team that was averaging 49.3 points per game at home.
“When it was 14-0, people watching this game, they said, ‘Maryland's done. They'll quit. What have they got left to play for?' ” Edsall said. “But that's not who they are. That's not what this program stands for.”
Maryland wore its multi-colored “Pride” uniforms and tried to play for just that — pride. The Terps had typically reserved those uniforms for games at home or neutral sites.
The Terps were averaging just 12 points in their three previous games — all started by converted linebacker Shawn Petty, who took over at quarterback because the four players ahead of him sustained season-ending injuries. Maryland was also playing again Saturday without its leading rusher, Wes Brown, and previous leading tackler, Demetrius Hartsfield. All-ACC lineman Joe Vellano was limited Saturday by a sore ankle and spent portions of his last career game limping or clapping on the sideline.
“I just kind of wanted to go out playing,” Vellano said. “I couldn't run the way I usually run.”
Petty, a freshman, topped 200 yards passing for the first time and appeared more composed in the pocket than in previous games.
Maryland tailback Brandon Ross cut the deficit to 14-7 with a 1-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. Ross, who reached 100 rushing yards for the second time this season, then churned 71 yards up the sideline, setting up a 2-yard Petty touchdown run to tie the score.
The Terps weren't done. After the Tar Heels took a 21-14 lead, Maryland scored 21 straight points. Two of the scores came courtesy of Stefon Diggs, who had another big day (eight catches for 82 yards) and ended his freshman year with the second-most all-purpose yards (1,896) in a single season in program history behind Torrey Smith (2,192 in 2009).
Diggs took the ball on a reverse and threw to tight end Matt Furstenburg for an 8-yard score to tie the game at 21-21 in the second quarter. After the Terps recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff and turned it into a 28-yard touchdown pass from Petty to Kevin Dorsey in final seconds of the half, Diggs' 99-yard kickoff return to open the second half extended Maryland's advantage to 35-21. It was Diggs' second kickoff return touchdown of the season.
But the Terps couldn't hold off Renner and Giovani Bernard, the ACC's leading rusher, who carried 27 times for 163 yards.
Renner's fifth touchdown pass of the game, a 15-yarder to Erik Highsmith, tied the game at 35 with 12:10 remaining in the third quarter.
Maryland got sloppy after that. The Terps fumbled twice, recovering both, but gave the Tar Heels the ball on Maryland's 31 after a short punt.
North Carolina followed with a 22-yard field goal by Thomas Moore to take a 38-35 lead with 6:58 left in the third quarter. The Tar Heels didn't trail after that. Leading by seven, they held the ball for the final three minutes of the game.
“We had a lot of adversity,” Diggs said. “We lost a lot of quarterbacks, we lost a lot of guys on defense. And we still battled.”