Brad Craddock took five paces back and a deep breath before marching forward to strike a 33-yard field goal attempt, Saturday’s game against North Carolina State and Maryland’s undefeated ACC record at stake. On the Terrapins’ sideline, Stefon Diggs turned his back, unable to watch before curiosity and camaraderie took over. Joe Vellano inched as close to the field as he could, prepared to storm Byrd Stadium in celebration after a heart-pounding win. A.J. Francis sat on the bench, head staring at the artificial turf, listening to 40,217 eager souls roar.
And then everything went silent. Nothing except the clanging echo of Craddock’s potential winner whacking the left post was heard in College Park, as the football struck yellow iron with two seconds left and the Wolfpack survived a 20-18 nail-biter.
Teammates told the Australian place kicker to keep his head high, that the loss, which dropped Maryland to 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference, was not on his shoulders. Running back Wes Brown felt sick, insistent that his fourth-quarter fumble cost the Terrapins, despite 121 hard-nosed rushing yards and a third-quarter touchdown. Craddock thought he struck the ball well, that the kick was good, until he heard the only cheers coming from the Wolfpack fan section.
“That’s the life of a kicker, really,” Vellano said. “It’s tough. It really is. I wouldn’t want to be in that situation.”
That the Terrapins wound up with a last-second chance was a testament to quarterbacks Devin Burns and Caleb Rowe. Burns, who started the season as a wide receiver, took over under center after Perry Hills suffered a knee injury just before halftime, and he perfectly executed the read option in Maryland’s pro-style offense. He led two touchdown drives in the third quarter, erasing deficits of seven and eight points until Craddock put Maryland up 18-17 with a 48-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter.
A Terrapins defense that never let things get out of hand then held firm until Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon executed a desperation drive that was capped off by Niklas Sade’s 43-yard field goal with 32 seconds remaining, giving N.C. State (5-2, 2-1) the winning points.
“That was a very disappointing and heartbreaking loss we had out there, but the guys competed and played very hard,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “They gave everything they had. We put ourselves in a position to win the game there at the end, but we just came up short.”
Burns volunteered to switch positions after incumbent quarterback C.J. Brown tore his ACL this past offseason. The Maryland football team boasted a loaded receiving corps, so Burns offered to revert to his high school position to provide much-needed depth under center.
But he never could he have imagined this, accelerating from third string to live action in seconds, sparking a stagnant offense Saturday with option runs and screen passes that, blow for blow, kept the Terrapins around in a game that, like Hills, seemed to slowly exit Byrd Stadium in the second quarter. Hills will soon have an MRI exam on his left knee, which he injured trying to make the tackle after a second-quarter interception.
“He wasn’t scared to tuck the ball and run, and he was very shifty and fast,” Brown said of Burns. “I was happy about him being able to step up, create a play and play a big role.”
Before Saturday, Burns only saw action against West Virginia, when Hills got the wind knocked out of him prior to halftime, and at Virginia as a change-of-pace quarterback. His first two series after halftime in front of 40,217 homecoming fans at Byrd Stadium, however, resulted in a one-yard touchdown plunge from Wes Brown and a two-yard naked bootleg for a score by Burns himself.
Craddock’s 48-yard field goal came with 13:34 left in the fourth quarter. The Wolfpack had three drives before Sade’s winner. Two ended in punts, the third a turnover on downs. But with 2:17 left and the ball on the N.C. State 20-yard line after a touchback, Glennon completed a 17-yard pass on first down. Two 14-yard passes later, including one on a questionable call that was upheld on a catch near the sideline, and the Wolfpack was at the Maryland 31, rushing to burn the clock and set up the winning field goal.
Rowe, the third-stringer who was in position to redshirt before the game, entered with less than a minute left. If something happened to Hills, Maryland’s coaches had previously determined that Rowe would take over in two-minute situations. The true freshman immediately found Kevin Dorsey on the far sideline for 17 yards. Rowe scrambled for 11 yards. Then Nigel King scampered down to the N.C. State 14-yard line on a 33-yard pass play, and on stepped Craddock, the charismatic yet erratic freshman kicker who had missed an extra point in the third quarter.
“I actually thought I hit it pretty well,” he said. “Afterwards, I didn’t really know what to think.”
Bewilderment. Sounds about right for a game that, until his kick ricocheted away, seemed unthinkably within reach.