CHAPEL HILL, N.C., OCT. 27 -- Maryland came to Kenan Memorial Stadium at the University of North Carolina today thinking about a bowl bid. But by the time the ACC game was over, North Carolina looked like the team with postseason aspirations. The Tar Heels took advantage of a bevy of Maryland mistakes and penalties and handed the Terrapins their most disappointing and confounding loss of the season, 34-10.
Short of beating Penn State and No. 1-ranked Virginia in its final two games, Maryland (5-4, 3-3) has little hope of reaping a bowl invitation. Those games also cast doubt on the Terrapins' ability to achieve their immediate goal -- a winning season.
"This is by far the most disappointing loss in my five years here," said senior nose tackle Rick Fleece. "I thought everyone was up and ready -- I mean this was a big game. If we win it pumps us up to another level, it makes it easier to get ready for those next two. Now our backs are to the wall and we're in a must-win situation."
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the loss was the near-total breakdown of the Maryland defense. After coming out flat in numerous games this year, the players promised they would be ready today, given the magnitude of clinching the team's first winning season in five years.
"We had to beat a team like North Carolina, not to go to a bowl but just because I thought we were a much better team than them," said cornerback Scott Rosen. "I guess they just wanted it more. . . . I'd love to give everyone answers on what happened, but I can't find them myself."
The sources of the befuddlement were North Carolina quarterback Todd Burnett and freshman tailback Natrone Means. Burnett completed 23 of 35 passes for 312 yards -- the fourth-highest total in school history -- after averaging 116 yards passing per game.
Of his total today, 252 yards came on first and second down. Means caught two shovel passes for 37 yards, causing the Maryland defense to become hesitant. Means took advantage, gaining 111 yards.
North Carolina (5-2-1, 2-1-1 ACC) outgained Maryland, 520 yards to 221. The Tar Heels had 28 first downs to Maryland's 13 and held the ball for 39:40.
There was no shortage of damaging statistics. Maryland was penalized 10 times for 60 yards, with three of the miscues keeping alive North Carolina scoring drives.
The most pointed instance came late in the third quarter. After forcing North Carolina into its first punt, Maryland was penalized 15 yards for having 12 players on the field. Five plays later Means scored on a one-yard, fourth-down carry to extend the lead to 31-10.
"If there was ever a game with a lot of mistakes it was this one; we made enough mistakes for an entire season," said Terrapins Coach Joe Krivak.
"In the second half we just didn't have our heads into the game and it cost us and cost us dearly."
Offensively, Maryland was erratic. Quarterback Scott Zolak completed 15 of 38 passes for 205 yards and was intercepted three times.
One of them was returned 24 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Thomas Smith.
An early sign of what kind of day it was going to be for Maryland came when normally sure-handed wide receiver Barry Johnson dropped three passes during the Terrapins' first four possessions. Wide-open receivers also went unseen or had passes thrown over their heads.
"I think we could have thrown all day," said Krivak in his first public criticism of Zolak. "We had people running open all day but the ball was thrown high or thrown outside."
"I wasn't happy with the way I played," Zolak said. "If the receivers were open, it was my fault for not finding them."
The offense's struggles were made costly because Maryland's normally sturdy defense was having troubles. Besides the penalties, the Terrapins missed tackle after tackle.
On second and 10 from the Tar Heels 9-yard line, Burnett hit Corey Holliday for 19 yards -- none of the defensive backs picked up the receiver standing alone on the outside.
North Carolina was stopped on its first two possessions, but didn't punt again until late in the third quarter.
Despite their breakdowns, the Terrapins held leads of 7-0 (a 26-yard pass from Zolak to Troy Jackson) and 10-9 (on a 32-yard Dan DeArmas field goal with 15 seconds left in the first half).
"We were making all those mistakes and they couldn't score a touchdown," said Rosen. "When we went into the locker room at halftime, everybody was psyched -- we thought we'd shut them out in the second half."
But North Carolina opened the third quarter with a 76-yard, five-play drive; 57 of the yards came on a second-down pass from Burnett to Holiday, the last five on a toss to Randall Felton. A two-point conversion run by Means made the score 17-10.
On their next possession, the Tar Heels moved to the Maryland 25 but Clint Gwaltney missed a 42-yard field goal. Three plays later Zolak threw an interception. Two plays after that, Mike Thomas intercepted a Burnett pass.
On the next play Zolak tried to hit Johnson but Smith stepped in front, snagged the pass and scooted untouched into the end zone. North Carolina's next drive started at its 18 and appeared stalled at the Maryland 45, but the illegal participation penalty kept it alive and when Means scored the game effectively was over.
"They got the momentum and started putting points on the board and we couldn't keep up," said Zolak. "We dug ourselves a hole and it just got deeper and deeper and we couldn't climb out."