Nothing excites Maryland and its fans more than beating North Carolina, which meant that the thorough thumping the Terrapins handed the Tar Heels yesterday at Byrd Stadium created a mixture of jubilation and disbelief.
The joy came quickly and kept building. Maryland forced seven turnovers, including two on kickoffs, had a 24-0 lead with a few seconds still left in the first quarter and matched its largest victory margin over the Tar Heels with a 45-7 Atlantic Coast Conference rout.
"Any time you're as good as we were on offense, defense and special teams," said cornerback Lewis Sanders, "no way can you lose."
To be sure, North Carolina (1-6, 0-5 ACC) has one of its rare poor teams; this will be its first losing season since 1989. But the magnitude of the blowout, coupled with the fact that Maryland's fifth victory of the season was as many as it mustered in the previous two seasons combined, took a while to digest fully. The crowd was just 27,077, partly because the game was televised locally.
Everyone involved, from Coach Ron Vanderlinden on down, knows the delightful possibilities ahead, that Maryland (5-2, 2-2) can clinch a winning season and gain the number of victories necessary for a bowl bid during homecoming next week against Duke. The Terrapins have not had a winning season since 1995. Their last bowl was in 1990 and they were 2-9 and 3-8 in Vanderlinden's first two seasons.
"To turn this around as quickly as we've done," said Vanderlinden, "I feel very good."
Before many of the first team players took the rest of the game off midway through the third quarter, tailback LaMont Jordan gained 147 yards and scored two touchdowns. Fullback Matt Kalapinski also had two touchdowns and quarterback Calvin McCall passed for 78 yards and a touchdown and ran for another 59 yards.
Maryland partisans arrived wondering mostly about the defense, whether last week's terrible performance in a 42-30 loss to Clemson would have any carry-over. That doubt began to disappear early, when linebacker Marlon Moore stepped in front of North Carolina quarterback Luke Huard's second pass, grabbed it and ran 51 yards for a touchdown.
On defense, nose tackle Delbert Cowsette had three sacks, safety Rod Littles had two fumble recoveries and Sanders had an interception, his sixth in seven games. Most important, they were confident that Erwyn Lyght, who had a sack and a fumble recovery, seemed fine after suffering a neck injury late in the second quarter.
Lyght was injured during a collision with teammate Peter Timmins and remained on the ground for about 20 minutes. He left the field in an ambulance and then was flown by helicopter to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore for precautionary X-rays. Vanderlinden said additional tests would be performed "but everything looks okay."
"He actually wanted to get up," Timmins said, "but they wanted to be completely safe."
A Maryland athletic department spokesman said late last night that a CAT scan on Lyght was normal and he was sent home wearing a neck collar. More will be known about his condition on Monday or Tuesday, the spokesman said.
The Terrapins already had gotten a 39-yard field goal from Brian Kopka on their first possession, so Moore's interception return lifted their lead to 10-0 with 6:34 still left in the first period. Ten seconds later, they were on their way to another touchdown.
That happened when North Carolina's Sam Aiken fumbled Kopka's kickoff and safety Littles dived on it at the Tar Heels 11. Two plays after a holding penalty, McCall threw a tight spiral into a stiff wind that tight end Eric James snatched at the 5 with cornerback Kevin Knight close by and twisted into the end zone. Maryland soon had a 17-0 lead.
It got to be 24-0 after a 21-yard punt return by Guilian Gary jump-started a short drive that included an 18-yard run by wide receiver Jermaine Arrington on a reverse. The Terrapins trotted into halftime with a 31-0 lead after another mini-drive that ended with Jordan getting nice blocks from left guard Todd Wike and Kalapinski and carrying cornerback Errol Hood into the end zone to complete an 11-yard run.
Just to make sure there would be no miracle comebacks, the Terrapins scored on their first two possessions of the second half for a 45-0 lead. The Tar Heels finally broke the shutout midway through the fourth quarter.
"I have probably not been through a more frustrating loss," North Carolina Coach Carl Torbush said. "Maybe in my career."
Torbush was angry that his team ran the ball as many times as Maryland for the game, had just 57 fewer yards and still had no reasonable chance to win shortly before halftime. The reason: all those turnovers. But Maryland came into the game ranked third in the country in turnover margin.
"Last week, I was miserable," said Timmins, alluding to the defense's horrid performance against Clemson. "I was saying I'd come back this week with a smile. I'm real excited right now."