CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Inside a closed, emotional locker room behind the east end zone at North Carolina’s Kenan Stadium, Maryland Coach Randy Edsall told his players just how much he loved them for fighting Saturday.
“There’s nobody who should have any regrets, because sometimes you’ll make mistakes,” Edsall said. “It’s just what this program is. And that’s the way it’s going to be. We made tremendous strides this year with what we want to accomplish and where we want to go.”
Maryland’s season ended with a 45-38 loss to the Tar Heels, a game in which the Terrapins first seemed destined for a blowout, then headed for a shocking upset, then scrambling to overcome 24 unanswered North Carolina points. The disappointment was still palpable during postagme interviews, much like it’s been since four scholarship quarterbacks suffered season-ending injuries and Maryland began reeling toward a six-game losing streak that wrapped up Edsall’s second season in College Park with a 4-8 record.
Little went as planned for the team’s 17 seniors, who dreamed of sunny bowl games and a lasting legacy but instead received injuries and adversity. The Terps entered Saturday without their leading tackler (Demetrius Hartsfield), leading rusher (Wes Brown), second-leading receiver (Marcus Leak), most potent second-level blitzer (Darin Drakeford) and Joe Vellano, their rock along the defensive line who has played with a sprained ankle suffered Nov. 3 against Georgia Tech.
That’s all without mentioning the injuries suffered by C.J. Brown, Perry Hills, Devin Burns and Caleb Rowe, which forced freshman linebacker Shawn Petty to cast aside his defensive playbook and learn a pared-down offense in three days. Petty played by far the best game of his likely short-lived quarterbacking career Saturday, completing 16 of 35 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, making smart decisions in the pocket even though he was intercepted once and nearly got picked off a few more times.
Life will pass for these Terps. Barring a repetition of the absurd, Petty will return to linebacker once his predecessors heal. And though Maryland went out with another loss, a finishing touch of frustration in this already maddening season, the players took solace in their fight.
“He told us how much he loved us, how unfair it was the stuff we’ve been through,” senior defensive lineman A.J. Francis said of Edsall’s postgame comments to the team. “He said nobody in the history of football has gone through what we’ve gone through this year, injury wise, and probably no one ever will. He said he loves us, and next year when they go to a bowl game, we’ll get all the gifts they get, because we deserve it.
“We don’t quit. We’re not quitters. We could have quit when C.J. went down. We could have quit when Perry went down. We could have quit when Marcus Leak and Devin went down in the same game as Perry. We could have quit when Caleb went down. It’s just not who we are, not what we do. We’re going to fight to the end. That’s the Maryland way.”
The seniors’ legacy indeed might come down the road, but for one cloudless afternoon it seemed that they’d get the ball rolling early. Among the mantras Edsall preaches to his players is a football derivation of carpe diem, the idea that every down should be played like it’s your last. Do that, Edsall tells them, and good things happen.
“As a team, we just wanted to work on finishing as a team, just never quitting,” said running back Brandon Ross, who finished with 21 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown. “That’s really what we want to take into next season, playing four quarters. Regardless of all our injuries, if you play four quarters you’ll win most of the time.”
At least, to a point. The Terps continued to fight and lose, especially through a brutal November stretch against the ACC’s top teams. After North Carolina scored two touchdowns on drives of 42 and 31 seconds, jumping out to a 14-0 lead with 12:11 left in the first quarter, Edsall implored his team to think about those watching on their televisions at home.
“When it was 14-0, people watching this game said Maryland will quit,” Edsall said. “What do they have to play for? But that’s not who they are, and not what this program stands for and represents. It would have been real easy for them to lay down. But that’s not Maryland pride.”
“Maryland Pride” uniforms were worn and Maryland pride was displayed, but the Terps still lost a 14-point third-quarter lead, finishing with negative yards in the third quarter, unable to take advantage of a potential finishing blow that Stefon Diggs struck on a 99-yard kickoff return to open the second half.
The Tar Heels fans gasped. The Terrapins cheered. On the sideline, Francis and Vellano looked at each other and wondered, “What the heck’s going on?” Then they said: “Oh all right. Let’s keep it going.”
“Things were going really well for a while,” offensive lineman Justin Gilbert said. “It seemed like things were finally coming together for us. Then we let the momentum swing for a little bit. But we kept fighting until the very end. There’s not much more you can ask from these guys.”
Except North Carolina took the torch from there. Quarterback Bryn Renner (West Springfield) tied a school record with five touchdowns and broke his own mark for single-season scores. Giovani Bernard pushed the lead to 10 points on a one-yard dive, and bested Ross with 163 yards on 27 carries.
Brad Craddock stuck a 27-yard field goal with 3 minutes 12 seconds left, but it mattered little. Bernard converted on third down, and North Carolina ran out the clock on Maryland’s season, ending the careers of 17 seniors who insisted on praising the fight and looking squarely into the program’s future.
“I’ve got no regrets,” Vellano said. “Played as hard as I could. What are you going to do?”
Vellano seemed out of answers, finally somewhat defeated after an entire season of refusing to give into fate.