Maryland had its nervous moments today when North Carolina held the ball for 18 of the first 20 minutes. Coach Bobby Ross said he kept telling himself, "I know we can score if we just get the daggone football."
Once they got it, the Terrapins did plenty with it as fullback Rick Badanjek scored four touchdowns to lead Maryland to a 34-23 victory over North Carolina in Kenan Stadium.
Maryland broke open its third straight victory by scoring two touchdowns within a 10-second span late in the third quarter. The Terrapins raised their record to 5-3 overall and 4-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, good for first place ahead of Virginia (2-0-1).
Quarterback Stan Gelbaugh played wonderfully again, completing 18 of 27 passes for 269 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions to offset Ethan Horton's 126 yards rushing for Carolina.
But it was defensive excellence that allowed Maryland to overcome three critical turnovers. "I don't know if we've ever had more adversity during a game," Ross said.
On Maryland's first play from scrimmage, Gelbaugh fumbled the snap from center -- his only mistake of the day -- and Carolina took over at the Maryland 25.
But the Terrapin defense, led by linebackers Eric Wilson and Chuck Faucette, held the Tar Heels to a 21-yard field goal.
Maryland, after trailing by 10-0, tied the game before halftime on Jess Atkinson's field goal and Gelbaugh's 10-yard screen pass/touchdown to Badanjek.
But Keeta Covington fumbled the first two kickoffs of the second half, each time deep in Maryland territory.
Instead of the Tar Heels scoring two touchdowns, Maryland's defense held them to two field goals by Kenny Miller. And the Terrapins, instead of being in a heap of trouble, stayed within 16-10 with 12 minutes left in the third quarter.
"We were trailing, but having given up only six points after all of that I thought we were in pretty good shape," Wilson said.
Faucette, who played despite suffering a sprained ankle in the first quarter, ran off the field screaming, "Come on O.
"I was nervous for a while," Faucette admitted. "I knew they'd strike but I was starting to wonder when."
Faucette had to first settle for a 43-yard field from Atkinson, whose 10 points today made him the ACC's all-time leading kick scorer with 278, passing Clemson's Obed Ariri. Atkinson's field goal made it 16-13.
Maryland got the ball back four plays later, after a punt. On third and four, Gelbaugh hit Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof for 16 yards and a first down to keep the Terrapins driving. "Big play, maybe the biggest of the game," Ross said.
Two plays later, Gelbaugh lofted a soft pass over the middle to Alvin Blount, who caught it at the 35, used an official as a screen, then cut behind a swift block from Abdur-Ra'oof to complete the 52-yard play to the Carolina three.
On the next play, Badanjek ended the 90-yard drive by hurling his body over the top and into the end zone. And despite all the adversity Ross referred to, Maryland had moved ahead, 20-16, with 22 seconds left in the third quarter.
Badanjek said of his leap, "I've been running over people and I hurt my shoulder that way two weeks ago. I decided I've got to cut back on that so I decided to try and go over the top. That gives me three moves now," he said, laughing. "Over somebody, around and through."
North Carolina's Earl Winfield fumbled the ensuing kickoff when hit by Doug Burmeister. Sean Scott recovered and Maryland again gave the ball to Badanjek, whose second touchdown 10 seconds later put the Terrapins up, 27-16.
Maryland continued moving at will on the next drive, getting a third-and-goal, five-yard touchdown run from Badanjek -- his 12th of the season -- for a 34-16 lead.
Badanjek rushed 16 times for 68 yards, caught four passes for 34 more yards and threw a block that sent one defender into a complete somersault.
"In a big ballgame, when you have a big man like Rick Badanjek, you go to him," Ross said.
Maryland had obvious success with Badanjek. But just as important was the Terrapins' success on third down -- they converted six of the first seven in the second half -- and Ross' defensive adjustments.
Carolina had Horton, but not much more. Even Horton, who carried 35 times, said, "They knew they had to stop me on the ground."
That was North Carolina's biggest problem, and also the biggest mystery.
Not only did Ross make the proper adjustments with his linebackers and defensive line stunts early in the second quarter, but Horton appeared tired late in the game.
Instead of attacking Maryland through the air -- the Terrapins came in with the ACC's top defense against the run, but were next to last against the pass -- Coach Dick Crum chose to run 54 times, and got 3.6 yards per carry.
Carolina fans winced, then booed, the play calling. At the end of the first half, after Maryland had tied the game at 10, the Tar Heels started from their 29 and ran twice.
Horton, a high school quarterback, threw a perfect option pass that was dropped inside the 20 by a wide-open Larry Griffin.
So what did the Tar Heels do on the next play? They ran fullback Brad Lopp for four yards. And what happened after Crum called timeout with 1:06 left? He ran Lopp up the middle for seven yards.
Two seconds were left after that first-down run, but the Tar Heels didn't even attempt to get off a play. More boos.
Carolina, after falling behind by 18, didn't score until the final minute when the Terrapins had a poor punt snap on fourth down.
Maryland, in fact, played some ball control itself the second half and after the terrible start finished slightly ahead (by 36 seconds) in the time of possession race.
Neal Sampson, one of the Maryland defensive linemen, remembered, "I kept looking up at the clock (in the first half) and it didn't look like it was even ticking."
But Sampson, like the rest of his teammates on defense, got to rest a lot in the second half -- watch Carolina's defense try unsuccessfully to stop the Terrapin.
"Our offense is cranked up now," said Blount, one of the primary crankers. "I think we're looking pretty good."