As they trotted off the turf this afternoon, Maryland players chanted: "No More Questions . . . No More Questions."
After a 31-24 victory over 10th-ranked North Carolina, before 51,319 homecoming fans at Kenan Stadium, the Terrapins felt they had answered the skeptics who questioned whether Maryland could beat one of the nation's elite teams in such an important game.
Maryland prevailed by rushing for 320 yards against a defense that entered the game first in the nation against the run. Tailback Willie Joyner had the best performance of his life, carrying 16 times for a school record 240 yards, including the winning touchdown, an 84-yard run with 7:31 left in the game that broke a 24-24 tie.
This was the most prestigious victory for Maryland football since the Terrapins defeated Florida, 13-0, in the 1975 Gator Bowl.
It was the sixth straight victory for the Terrapins (6-2, 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference). Clemson, the defending conference champion, is 3-0 and comes to College Park on Nov. 13. Maryland will almost certainly be ranked among the nation's top 20 in this week's polls.
"I grew up watching Maryland football and I've played here for two years," said cornerback Gil Hoffman, from De Matha High School in Hyattsville, Md. "I know how many times Maryland has come so close in games like this, but never got there. Today, we got there."
They got there mostly because of Joyner, who scored Maryland's last two touchdowns on runs of 49 and 84 yards, and had another run for 55 yards that set up a third touchdown.
North Carolina (5-2, 2-1) had allowed its six previous opponents a total of 258 yards on the ground. The Tar Heels' defense had permitted opposing teams only 155 yards per game this season, but Maryland gained 486 total yards. "We hit them, but we couldn't wrap them up," said Carolina safety Willie Harris.
Meanwhile, the Terrapins stopped Carolina's running game, ranked fourth in the nation, and didn't allow tailback Kelvin Bryant a run of longer than 11 yards.
"It's easily the greatest victory I've ever been associated with," said Maryland Coach Bobby Ross. "We proved we can win a crucial football game."
North Carolina Coach Dick Crum said, "Maryland played as well as they needed to," but said he couldn't understand why "we were fairly lethargic."
A regional television audience and scouts from the Cotton, Sugar, Liberty, Gator, Fiesta and Tangerine bowls saw a pulsating game with enough dramatic plays in one afternoon to fill a season.
As in the old days, it started slowly for Maryland.
Esiason was sacked on Maryland's first play from scrimmage for an 11-yard loss, and the Terrapins gained zero yards in their first two possessions while being penalized four times for 27 yards. "We were atrocious at the start," Ross said.
The Tar Heels took a 7-0 lead at the end of the first quarter on Rod Elkins' nine-yard pass to Bryant.
But the Terrapins countered with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Boomer Esiason to Russell Davis to start the second quarter.
A 27-yard interception return by safety Billy McFadden set up Jess Atkinson's 22-yard field goal for a 10-7 Maryland lead midway through the second quarter.
But the Tar Heels came back a minute later when Elkins, starting his first game after missing four weeks with a knee injury, threw the longest touchdown pass of his career, 68 yards to Mark Smith. He caught the ball at the Maryland 35 and broke away from cornerback Lendell Jones.
That put Carolina back on top, 14-10.
The Terrapins put together an impressive drive and moved to the Carolina 15, as Esiason completed a dazzling 36-yard pass to Darryl Emerson. That was the longest gain of the season against the Tar Heels at the time.
But Esiason's pass to tight end John Tice was intercepted at the six by cornerback Walter Black. That set up Brooks Barwick's 29-yard field goal to increase the lead to 17-10.
Then Joyner got loose.
The Terrapins started at their own 20 and moved seven yards on a run on a misdirection play by fullback Dave D'Addio. On the next play, Joyner broke away from a linebacker at the line of scrimmage and ran 55 yards down the sideline in front of the Maryland bench. Carolina's Black caught him at the 18 to save a touchdown, but D'Addio (nine carries, 61 yards) ran around left end for the touchdown and a 17-17 tie.
The Tar Heels regained the lead, 24-17, 10 seconds into the fourth quarter on Elkins' three-yard scoring pass to Bryant that finished a 75-yard drive.
But Joyner ran 49 yards to tie the game at 24 less than two minutes later, barely getting into the end zone after another dash around the right side of the defense.
The Maryland defense held when Crum elected to send Bryant up the middle on third and eight. Bryant was swarmed under after only two yards, forcing a punt.
Maryland began at its own seven and moved to the 16 on runs by Joyner and D'Addio.
On third and one, Joyner took a pitchout from Esiason five yards deep in the backfield. He broke away from Harris at the line of scrimmage and was in the clear 15 yards later. Both hands were raised as he crossed the goal line.
Carolina failed to move on its next possession, punting with 5:43 remaining. It is significant that Tim Quander successfully fielded the punt while being tackled hard by Carolina's Dwight Parrish.
Last year, Maryland's Mike Lewis fumbled a punt with less than two minutes to play, allowing Carolina to score and win, 17-10, at College Park. Ross decided Thursday to replace Lewis as the punt return man with Quander, who also returns kicks.
Maryland ran the final 13 plays, getting four first downs, including Esiason's 12-yard pass to Tice with just more than two minutes left.
Said D'Addio: "We held hands the last drive and just kept saying, 'First downs, boys, we gotta get first downs.' "