It was the kind of game Maryland used to lose.
The Terrapins overcame themselves and a 10-point Miami lead in the fourth quarter yesterday to win their seventh straight, 18-17, before 43,200 at Byrd Stadium.
Miami's Jeff Davis missed a 40-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left that allowed Maryland to improve its record to 7-2 and build momentum going into next week's game against Clemson. Maryland and Clemson, both 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, are tied for first place.
Scouts from the Sun, Tangerine and Aloha bowls were in attendance. All were noncommittal when asked if Maryland was their first choice.
The Terrapins made so many mistakes through the very last minute that it was surprising they could win. But a touchdown and two-point conversion pass from Boomer Esiason to Mike Lewis midway through the fourth quarter and a 38-yard field goal by Jess Atkinson with 2:14 left erased a 17-7 Miami lead.
"Thank God we won one of these," Esiason said afterward. "In the past, we always lost the close ones in the fourth quarter. A good team has to win these type of games."
"We came back from about everything bad that could happen," said Atkinson.
There were 12 penalties against Maryland, about 12 dropped passes -- several near Miami's goal line -- bad punt snaps and bad execution on field goal attempts.
The Terrapins finally regained their composure in the final seconds.
Trailing, 17-7, the Terrapins scored on a four-yard touchdown run by fullback Rick Badanjek to pull to 17-13 with 7:50 remaining in the game. Without hesitation, Coach Bobby Ross went for the two-point conversion.
There was utter confusion on the Maryland sideline, in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.
"It was supposed to be a run play for Badanjek," Esiason said. "On the sideline, Coach Ross said I had the option to call a pass play at the line.
"I said, 'To what?' He said, 'I don't know. Call a 72 or something.'
"Everything was messed up. I was screaming to everybody, 'Just pass-block . . . don't go downfield.' It was like drawing a play with my hand (in the dirt). We just called it, and it worked."
Maryland's configuration was so confusing that Miami's defense forgot to cover Lewis. He bobbled Esiason's toss, but grasped the ball and landed on his knees, in bounds, in a praying position.
Lewis, who has dropped passes and punt returns all season, said, "I'd be lying if I stood here and told you this didn't help bring some confidence back to me."
Lewis' catch made it 17-15, still in Miami's favor. But the Terrapins' defense held and they got an 18-yard punt from Greg LaBelle.
Starting from the Hurricanes' 43, Maryland got a four-yard run from Badanjek on fourth and inches but stalled at the 21, with 2:14 left. Maryland had been penalized twice for delay of game and called three more timeouts to avoid more penalties.
With less than one second left on the 25-second play clock, Atkinson kicked his 38-yarder for an 18-17 lead.
"I was lining it up with eight seconds left on that clock and I tried to envision it going through the goalposts like I always do," said Atkinson, a believer in psychocybernetics, the power of concentration. "I didn't have enough time for my normal preparation, but I just kicked it.
"I knew after I missed the first one (a 23-yarder in the third quarter) I had to get another chance. I got a lot of harassment from the Miami bench after the one I missed."
The next crucial play also involved Atkinson.
Ross ordered a squib kick on the ensuing kickoff, a decision he later regretted. Atkinson's first kick went out of bounds; his second hit Miami's Juan Comendeiro, who was looking back toward his own return men. He recovered in time to fall on the ball at midfield, and the Hurricanes took possession at their own 49.
"I've done that (accidentally) about five times in practice and the ball has always bounced about 10 yards back to me," Atkinson said. "I couldn't believe it just died in front of the guy."
Freshman quarterback Kyle Vanderwende, who played admirably in his first start, completed a second-and-16 pass to Al Bentley, who struggled nine yards to the Terrapin 24. Fullback Speedy Neal carried one yard on third down, and the Hurricanes got set for the deciding field goal.
Jeff Davis, a 5-foot-6, 140-pound junior, had kicked a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. But this time, the snap was high from Don Bailey and the kick sailed wide right. The largest home crowd of the year and the Terrapins celebrated with nine seconds left.
The officials penalized the Terrapins for delay of game, but this time the yellow flag didn't matter.
"We must be living right," screamed Jim Cavanaugh, a Maryland assistant coach, as he ran happily to the locker room.
And finally, it meant Atkinson had won a game for the Terrapins. He had joked for the last two weeks that he wouldn't be happy until he kicked a field goal at the end of the game to become a hero.
On Miami's kick, Atkinson sat on the bench, looking straight at the ground.
"Every time I've looked at the opposing kicker, he's always made the thing," Atkinson said. "I knew the crowd noise would tell me. I just once wanted to win one.
"I guess this is what kickers live for, what they stick for--to kick the game-winning field goal."