With quarterback Tim O'Hare and tailback Steve Atkins leading the way yesterday, the Maryland Terrapins took a huge first step toward regaining the Atlantic Coast Conference title that eluded them last year, upsetting defending champion North Carolina, 21-20.

A sellout crowd of 48,000 at misty Kenan Memorial Stadium watched in disbelief as backup wide receiver Gary Ellis whirled 360 degress and caught a 28-year pass, setting up Atkins' winning run of six yards with 7:27 left in the game. Atkins gained 167 yards and scored twice, complementing O'Hare's 164-yard passing performance with 13 completions of 24 attempts.

The 16th-ranked Terps. now 3-0. went for a two-point conversion after Atkins' touchdown, but quarterback Mike Tice's pass was a bit too long and Dean Richards caught it out of bounds.

A one-point margin was all the Terps needed, however, as Maryland's defense didn't let the deflated Tar Hells past their 30-yard line for the rest of the game.

North Carolina was a slight favorite but no one really knew what to expect from the two ACC powerhouse teams.

Maryland's defense played brilliantly through most of the afternoon, holding Carolina to 169 yards rushing, and squelching halfback (Famous) Amos Lawrence for a net 38 yards-his worst performance as a starter.

Offensive liabilities had appeared in Carolina's shaky, 14-10 winning debut over East Carolina last week and Maryland's defense didn't allow the Tar Heels to improve. Under new Coach Dick Crum, the Heels run sometimes from the veer pro set, sometimes from the I and in shortyardage situations, from the straight T.

The Tar Heels never appeared to be in offensive command yesterday, even though they took a 20-15 lead with 12:11 left in the game.

As an indication of how things were going for Carolina, the touchdown that put the Heels ahead went like this: On second and goal from the five, starting quarterback Matt Kupec's jersey was torn for the second time in the game. Carolina, short on timeouts, sent in backup Clyde Christensen, who threw a pass that bounced off the fingertips of Bob Loomis, over two Maryland defenders and into the hands of a very surprised Wayne Tucker, a sophomore flanker who had not caught a pass this year.

"I turned around and the ball was there," said Tucker. "You take what you can get."

Maryland went ahead, 9-0, on Ed Loncar's 47-yard field goal (made possible by a 45-yard Atkins run) and Atkins 36-yard bolt down the right sideline. Atkins outran the Caroline secondary on the play. Loncar's point-after attempt hit the left post.

The Tar Heels drew within 9-7 as Carolina struggled most of the 81 yards down field. On third and seven, Kupec was chased around the backfield by Marlin Van Horn, but managed to fire a 24-yard pass to Loomis at the Maryland 43.

The touchdown came on fourth and one at the 34, on a play that netted nothing the previous down. From the straight T. Kupec handed off to running back Billy Johnson, who had run for the first time this season seconds before for no gain. This time, Johnson ran the same play up the middle, seemed to be stopped, then squirted out of the pack for a touchdown. Jeff Hayes' kick made it 9-7 at the end of the quarter.

Maryland fattened its lead to 15-7 on field goals by Loncar (34 and 33 yards) while the defense came up with big plays to stifle the Tar Heels. Defensive back Lloyd Burruss blocked Hayes' attempted 29-yard field goal and Bruce Palmer's 11-yard sack halted another drive.

Palmer was everywhere yesterday making the best of his matchup with All-America guard Mike Salzano. Palmer had 12 tackles, three for losses.

"I heard he was all-this and all-that," said Palmer, "so I was really up. And he's good.

"He can crab (scoot on all fours) pretty good, but that's about all he could stop me on. You see, the veer still confuses him. It's not like last year. He wasn't ever sure where the quaterback was going to be, so he didn't know where to block me."

Palmer added that Maryland's defensive was not keying on Lawrence.

"We tried mainly to stop the quarterback from going outside," said Palmer. "And I guess we did."

Salzano blamed some of Palmer's plays for Carolina losses.

"He's quick and he jumps around a lot," said Salzano. "I think he would jump behind me when I pulled a lead the sweep."

After Palmer, Ralph Lary and Charlie Johnson combined on a tackle to stop another Carolina drive on fourth and two, the Tar mounted an other shaky assault-this one from their 33.

The Tar Heels started out having to convert three straight third-and-long situations to reach the Maryland 33. A 14-yard run by Terrence Burrell made it first and goal at the seven, and a pass interference call on Burruss for bumping shoulders with a receiver gave the Heels a first and goal at the two.

From there, it took four plays to score by a hair, Burrell pushing over the left side from a yard away for the score, bringing Carolina to 15-13.

The Tar Heels attempted a conversion pass but linebacker Neal Olkewicz batted it away. Olkeswicz shared the defensive spotlight with Palmer, getting credit for 13 tackles, three for losses.

Christensen's freak pass to Tucker put the Tar Heels up, 20-15, but Maryland scored on the next drive to take the lead for good.

The drive began on the Terps' 32. O'Hare, scrambling, passed for 13, 6, 11 and 9 yards before a pass interference penalty got the Terps to Carolina's 17.

There, an 18-yard holding penalty seemed to put the Terps in an inescapable hole. But on second and 28, O'Hare completed the Terps' pass of the game to Ellis for the first down.

"It was a corner route, which means I take three steps, stop, get the guy to commit himself, and then I break down and out," said Ellis, who had to spin inside to catch the ball. "I saw the ball at its height, and I still though it was going to the outside of me. I looked back at the last second and dove inside to catch it."

The man defending on the play, cornerback Jay Faulkner, had a chance at the ball but never knew it was coming because he couldn't hear the defensive signal in the crowd noise. He was watching Ellis.

"Bernie (Menapace) called "ball" but I couldn't hear him." said Faulkner. "It hurts.You should have seen me when I came in the locker room. I was bawling. I can't help but think I lost the game for us."

The catch put Maryland at the Carolina seven. Two plays later the Terps sent everybody in a white shirt to the right on the tailback sweep. Atkins went in easily from six yards out for the 21-20 lead with 7:27 left.

"I never felt we were out of the ACC race," said Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne. "The best thing about the game was the way we got ahead, fell behind and then we came back. That speaks well of our conditioning and aggressiveness."

Liberty Baptist. . . 14.

Bowie State. . . 13.

Freshman running back Johnson Sheppard rushed for 156 yards and one touchdown to lead visiting Liberty Baptist to a 14-13 triumph over Bowie State.

The loss was the first in three games for the Bulldogs: Liberty Baptist won its first of four games.

The losers drove 49 yards with Allen Roots' second touchdown reception of the game pulling them within 14-13 with 4:16 left in the game. But quarterback Blaine Sadler tripped and fell at the four-yard line attempting a two -point conversion.