When the surrounding trees are in full autumnal splendor, Kenan Stadium is among the loveliest in America. This might well be where a football purist would choose to watch his dream matchup. Today's game actually was worthy of the setting.
The scene forever will fill a spot in the mind of every Marylander who bothered to follow his team, and his heart, here: under a Carolina-blue sky, with Carolina-blue balloons floating high among preppy-fall leaves, the Terrapins knocked the Carolina-blue blazes out of the 10th-rated team in the country.
The score was 31-24; the Heels were beaten worse than that. The staggering part was not the Terrapins winning, but how. They left large cleat marks all over the gang with the previously best run defense among teams not striking for higher wages. And loved it.
"Down and came back, down and came back again," said Defensive Coordinator Gib Romaine, who has seen other Terrapin teams come close in games such as this, and fail. Near tears, he yelled: "It happened! Unbelievable! And there's nothing sweeter than to do it here."
With the possible exception of Penn State, no victory brings more satisfaction than over Carolina. Especially when Carolina had preseason dreams of a national championship and Maryland was picked to be among the collegiate slugs.
"The major turning point under Bobby Ross," gushed Athletic Director Dick Dull. His next words are what every Maryland loyalist has been waiting to say for ever so long: "The criticism that we can't win the big one no longer applies."
Yep, this was a big one.
Even ancient Terrapins couldn't remember beating a higher-ranked team in perhaps a generation. So when the players jumped and skipped off the field it was with the joy of having whipped a genuinely fine team, and also with the relief of a massive monkey having leaped off their collective back.
For how it happened, we'd better join the team at halftime. Down 14-10, Ross said the running game had to get better. Quickly. Carolina was playing pass, if not passively, all but daring the Terrapins to run.
"We told him we thought we could block 'em," said right tackle Dave Pacella. Honestly, he added: "But we weren't exactly sure. We did think we could run on 'em, so we started. And it worked."
Worked like even Jerry Claiborne might not believe.
Only a couple numbers are necessary to illustrate the dominance: Carolina had allowed six teams a total of 258 yards; Willie Joyner had 212 yards in the second half today. During one magnificent stretch, Maryland ran nine plays, gained 253 yards and scored three touchdowns.
"Told 'em they had to sustain their blocks from whistle to whistle," Ross said. Noboby ever followed orders better.
Ross was as impressed with Maryland's courage.
"Probably the guttiest performance I've ever seen," he said. "Guys coming out hurt, then going back in. (Linebacker Mike) Muller, (offensive guard Len) Lynch, (offensive guard Ron) Solt. Coming back in; playing tough. Gutty."
As Ross hinted, the Terrapins buried the Heels' defense at times with a patchwork offensive line and runners hardly rated in Carolina's class. Joyner stepped into the end zone from afar twice. And a fullback wearing No. 44 is alive and well in Washington, after all. His name is Dave D'Addio.
"We didn't lose any faith," said Pacella. "That's the best part of this team."
It was Pacella who told quarterback Boomer Esiason after an interception early in the third-quarter that could have been disastrous: "We're gonna win. Keep throwing."
He only threw two more passes.
"That was enough," Pacella said.
More than enough.
"Those are the quickest players I've ever gone against, bar none," said reserve guard Ed Aulisi. "But it started to get fun at 24-all, because we'd kept our confidence. We knew if the defense could stop 'em, we'd start another drive. Going in for 31 was when it was fun."
So it must have been ecstacy the last 5 minutes 43 seconds.
Needing the ball for one final heroic drive, Carolina couldn't get it.
"I knew coming in that we'd have to establish the run to win," said Pacella, "that their defense was the best in the country. We just had to suck up our guts and see what happened."
Matter of factly, he added:
"Except for a couple of plays (against Penn State and West Virginia), we could be undefeated."
Charging into the top 20 at 6-2 isn't all that bad.
"If we don't get respect now," Pacella said, "something's wrong with someone else."
There was no respect the first series; none was deserved, Pacella said.
"Awful is about right," he admitted. "Kinda nervous; kind of uptight; kind of shook up. But we got settled down (after a sack and four penalties the first two possessions)."
With Maryland, nothing is ever over until the final punt is fielded. The Carolina game and two others last season were lost, in large part, because a punt receiver muffed a catch. Error-prone Mike Lewis was replaced by Tim Quander today.
Sure enough, just before that victory-clinching drive, the ball and a Tar Heel hit Quander at exactly the same time.
Quander said he remembered Lewis last year; what he forgot was to signal fair catch.
"Not ready to take the hit," he allowed, "but determined to hold onto the ball regardless, really determined not to let that happen again."
"Scary," said Ross, still breathing hard half an hour after his first fine moment at Maryland. "Scary."