Maryland's season-long struggle to hang onto its Atlantic Coast Conference title was buried today in a pile of bandages and misdirected footballs.

North Carolina converted three turnovers into three fourth-quarter field goals for the 16-7 victory over the Terapins before a crowd of 42,683 at Byrd Stadium.

The Terps, now 3-2 in the ACC with one game left, against Virginia, now must hope for the virtual impossibility of a three-way tie. North Carolina (3-0 in the ACC) plays Clemson (4-1), Virginia and Duke. The North Carolina confrontation is the lone league game remaining for Clemson.

The Tar Heel defense that bottled up Maryland's running game and forced 64 per cent passer Larry Dick into his worst collegiate effort probably will not fall apart against the likes of Virginia, so it appears next Saturday's North Carolina-Clemson game will decide the championship.

It was clear immediately to the crowd today that UNC's nationally ranked defense would be disassembled only be the most intricately played games of the two men who make Maryland go - Dick and tailback Steve Atkins.

But Dick threw four interceptions, including two poorly thrown balls in the final period that set up Tom Biddle's final 30- and 25-yard field goals for a 16-7 lead with 7:54 left. A subsequent interception cengraved the inscription on the Maryland tombstone.

Atkins pulled a hamstring receiving the opening kickoff, played at half-strenght briefly in the first half and sat out the rest.

His replacement, Preacher Maddox, sprained an ankle early in the second quarter, bringing on sophomore George Scott, who played admirably under such pressure until he fumbled a kickoff to set up Biddle's 25-yard field goal, which broke the 7-7 fourth-quarter tie.

"Their defensive line was big and quick, and we needed our big back if we hoped to break them," said Dick. "Lossing Steve hurt us a lot.

"I take the blame for the loss. Our line got beat and our backs were best, too. I feel sorry for our defense, because as good as Carolina's defense was, I think we showed that ours is at least as good."

Indeed, the defense all but scored Maryland's only touchdown. Defensive back Lloyd Burruss intercepted Matt Kupec's pass and returned it 63 yards before he was knocked out of bounds at the two by the only man in the stadium fast enough to catch him, tailback "Famous" Amos Lawrence.

Atkins pushed in low from the two and the 7-0 lead stood at the half. But Atkins would most of the rest of his yards scurrying in and out of the stadiums to the training room.

"Every time I get hurt, people wonder why," said Atkins, who put on a smiliar in-again-out-again performance against Penn State. "But I take a lot of punishment. My hamstring has been bothering me for two or three weeks."

The Terps, now 4-4 overall, wanted two scoring opportunities before the first half ended. Ed Loncar's 37-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter bounced crazily along the ground. He explained later that holder John Papuchis, who has taken over for the injured Mark Manges, dropped the ball just before it was kicked.

In the second quarter, Maryland wasted its best drive, as Dick hit passes of 17, 13 and 15 yards to power the Terps from their 43 to a first and goal at the seven. On fourth and two, Scott ran the same play up the middle from a fullhouse backfield that Atkins had run for the touchdown. But Scott was stopped by a helmet in the chest from linebacker Baddy Curry.

"I missed Atkins on that play the first time," said Curry. "But I guessed what they were going to do."

Maryland coach Jerry Claiborne defended his decision to go for the touchdown rather than the field goal.

"If I had known we wouldn't get the touchdown, I would have gone for the field goal," said Caliborne. "But we had already missed one field goal, and a 14-0 lead would have been very big.

"We didn't capitalize on some opportunities to score in the first half, and they did capitalize on some opportunities in the second half, and that's basically what happened. This is a real tough ballgame to lose."

It seemed the Terps' single touchdown might be eough to win the defensive struggle. Carolina, in the first half, ran just one offensive play in Maryland territory - the interception to Burruss. Kupec could not complete a pass in the first half, and Lawrence, who was named offensive player of the game for his 93-yard day, had been held to 26 yards on seven carries.

But Carolina tied it early in the third quarter, driving 63 yards in eight plays. Kupec threw an eight-yarder to Mel Collins on third and 10 and, after Dough Paschal just barely squeezed out the required two yards on fourth down, Kupec unloaded for 36 yards to Collins, open for the score at the left sideline because the Maryland secondary was unable to hear the defensive call in the crowd noise.

"The injuries took away the things we wanted to do," said Claiborne. "But you have to give Carolina's defense credit."

UNC coach Bill Dooley took care of that.

"It's hard to just cite one or two players after our defense did what it did today," said Dooley, whose defenders have given up just one touchdown in the last eight quarters. "This was a big game - a step up the ladder toward the ACC championship."