Many in the homecoming crowd had already left the premises and Maryland's football team seemed all but counted out. And not just for one game, but for the whole season.
Somehow, however, the Terrapins stopped making mistakes and started making plays. The highly improbable turn of events resulted in two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the final 9 1/2 minutes, followed by two two-point conversions and a game-clinching interception that gave Maryland a stunning, 23-22 victory over Duke today at Byrd Stadium.
"I'm numb," said Coach Joe Krivak.
The Terrapins came all the way back behind sophomore reserve quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who came off the bench to direct all three Maryland touchdown drives, then threw the game-winning pass for two points to Vernon Joines with 1:55 remaining. When Irvin Smith intercepted a Duke pass with 20 seconds left, the Terrapins were right back in the middle of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship race.
The victory left Maryland 4-3 overall and in a first-place tie with Clemson in the ACC following the Tigers' 30-28 loss to North Carolina State yesterday. For Maryland, the difference between 4-3 and 3-4 is enormous.
"You bet your sweet bananas," Krivak said. "If that goes the other way, I think we would have had problems getting people up for the rest. I'm just guessing, but that's the feeling I had."
At the start of the fourth quarter, Krivak was worried, to say the least. Duke led, 22-7, and many in what was left of a crowd of 37,400 booed the Terrapins, who had sputtered and stumbled and begun to lose their poise.
"I had some bad vibes midway through the third quarter," said Krivak. "Some tough things were going through my mind. But I knew one thing: we just had to hang in there."
And they did. O'Donnell replaced starter Dan Henning, who was knocked silly after scrambling for a first down on Maryland's first possession of the game. Henning played the next series, but then came to the sideline and said he could not go on. Trainer J.J. Bush said "by definition" Henning had a concussion, but that it was slight and that he was feeling better by the end of the game.
O'Donnell directed Maryland to a touchdown on his first series and its first possession of the second quarter, but then the Terrapins were shut out until late in the game.
On the strength of five field goals by Doug Peterson, Duke led, 22-7, when Maryland took over at its 8 with 9:17 left in the game. O'Donnell -- who finished with 23 completions in 33 attempts for 293 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- started the drive with four straight completions to four different receivers. Then, following a 14-yard pass to Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof and a 15-yard completion to Ferrell Edmunds, fullback Dennis Spinelli followed guard Dave Amend and tackle Clarence Jones over the right side to score from five yards out.
Maryland went for two points, to get in position to win if it could get another touchdown. O'Donnell rolled right, with Edmunds moving across the back of the end zone and Spinelli running parallel underneath. O'Donnell found an open Spinelli, who just managed to get across the line to cut the Duke lead to 22-15 with 5:39 left in the game.
The Blue Devils (3-4, 0-3) looked as if they would end a 13-game losing streak against Maryland by passing the Terrapins to death. They came very close. Quarterback Steve Slayden took whatever Maryland didn't cover and completed 31 of 42 passes for 373 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. But when the Blue Devils got possession with 5:39 left, they couldn't move.
The Terrapins got it back at their 21 with 3:16 left. James Milling had caught only three passes this year after missing the first three games with a broken finger. But today he caught six, for 99 yards, and the biggest two came on the final scoring drive.
O'Donnell hit him for 32 yards on the first play. Then Milling made a leaping grab along the sideline and got both feet down before falling out of bounds at the five. That catch gave the Terrapins first-and-goal with 2:04 left in the game.
On first down, Spinelli was thrown for a 4-yard loss. But on second down, Edmunds found himself covered only by a linebacker.
"I saw they had 'man' coverage on him," O'Donnell said. "Ferrell's 6-6, so I knew I could throw it high. I knew I had to get him the ball no matter what."
Edmunds touchdown cut the Duke lead to 22-21 and Krivak said he had already decided he was going for the win. "A tie wouldn't do us any good," Krivak said. "And at that point, after coming back from 22-7, we need the win."
O'Donnell dropped back, but was forced out of the pocket by a Duke blitz. Running right, he threw just before he was hit. "I saw nothing," he said.
Joines came toward the ball from the back of the end zone and reached over cornerback Dewayne Terry to grab the pass for a 23-22 lead with 1:55 left.
"Neil had enough poise to know you've got to throw the ball on a two-point play," Krivak said. "You can never just eat it."
The Terrapins were ecstatic and those left in the stands were going wild. But there was still lots of time left, and the Terrapins weren't safe just yet.
Maryland had eight sacks for the day, but with 46 seconds left, Slayden scrambled out of the collapsing pocket and ran 16 yards for a first down at the Maryland 42. Peterson's first field goal was from 48 yards, so if Duke could get another 10, they'd have a shot to win.
But on the next play, Bob Klein sacked Slayden for a seven-yard loss. Then, after a Duke timeout, Slayden tried to hit wide receiver Clarkston Hines, who had already caught eight passes for 154 yards. But this time, cornerback Smith read the down-and-out pattern and came up to make a diving interception with 20 seconds left.
"We only got one," said a smiling defensive coordinator Greg Williams, "but we got it when it counted."
Nevertheless, Krivak was still worried. Duke called time after O'Donnell ate the ball on first down, but after the second play, Maryland center Bill Hughes limped off the field with a twisted ankle.
Already wrung out, Krivak crouched by the 30-yard line hoping the miracle wouldn't evaporate as quickly as it appeared.
But Mark Agent and O'Donnell were smooth on the final snap and the Terrapins had their victory.