RALEIGH, N.C. —- Maryland’s football season was going to come to a close Saturday regardless of outcome. Somehow, the end was even more unbearable than the Terrapins ever would have guessed.
Maryland blew a 27-point lead in the second half, flailing to a 56-41 loss to N.C. State to wrap up one of the most miserable autumns in school annals.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack clinched bowl eligibility after scoring 42 points in the final 21 minutes. They were the fourth team to become postseason eligible by defeating the Terrapins (2-10, 1-7 ACC) this season.
“This one hurts big-time,” quarterback C.J. Brown said.
It wrapped up a second 10-loss season in three years for Maryland, which absorbed its school-record seventh consecutive double digit loss. Yet the final impression —- an unforgettable collapse to hang a 10th loss on the ledger —- made this more bitter than anything associated with the 2-10 mark uncorked in 2009.
“I think this is worse with this game. … It just stapled our season,” linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield said. “It’s one of the worst feelings I’ve had as an athlete ever.”
Hartsfield would have an appropriate frame of reference, since he started on both the 2009 and 2011 teams. Yet the backdrop of the two seasons was markedly different.
Two years ago, Maryland was seemingly doomed from the start with an inexperienced offensive line, yet still was within a touchdown entering the fourth quarter in all but three games.
This Terps team, beset by injuries to some extent, was still coming off a 9-4 season and appeared to be a decent bet to at least return to the postseason for the second straight year. Instead, Randy Edsall presided over a decline of seven victories, matching the second-largest drop in wins for a first-year major-conference coach in the last half-century.
It was also the second largest decline in victories ever for a first-year ACC coach, behind only the eight-win dip endured by Maryland’s Tommy Mont in 1956.
And the Terps also became the first major-conference program ever to sandwich a pair of 10-loss campaigns around a winning season —- all while former head coach-in-waiting James Franklin clinched bowl eligibility by leading previously woebegone Vanderbilt to a victory at Wake Forest just 90 miles to the west.
Unlike other Maryland losses, though, the Terps were more than competitive. In fact, they throttled and humbled N.C. State when the Wolfpack (7-5, 4-4) were lackluster in the first half.
Dexter McDougle and A.J. Hendy scored touchdowns on defense. Kevin Dorsey caught a 24-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half. And tailback Davin Meggett rumbled 46 yards out of a three tight end formation early in the third quarter to make it 41-14.
“That’s our potential as a team,” said Brown, who rushed for two scores and threw for another. “Everyone’s playing well, everyone’s clicking well. We were running the ball, throwing the ball. Defense was playing great. We were just playing Maryland football. We played a heck of a first half.”
It just didn’t last. The Wolfpack stitched together two long scoring drives, then recovered a Davin Meggett fumble and cashed it in four players later for a touchdown. Then came a Brown interception, which N.C. State followed up with a 10-play touchdown drive to seize a 42-41 lead.
“All the sudden, we just couldn’t make a play,” Edsall said.
It wasn’t enough, though, to construct the second-largest comeback ever in an ACC game, behind only Clemson’s rally from a 28-point deficit to topple Virginia in 1992.
Maryland punted down a point, then allowed N.C. State another touchdown march. The Wolfpack finished things off when C.J. Wilson returned a Brown interception 59 yards for a touchdown in the final minute.
“It was kind of a waterfall or whatever you want to call it,” defensive tackle Joe Vellano said. “Just one after another.”
And so the end finally arrived to a bunch so decimated by injuries and suspensions that it used more defensive starting lineups (12) than uniform combinations (11) over the last three months.
There will be plenty of time to analyze and assess the difficulties encountered in Edsall’s first season. For his part, Edsall declined to say if he anticipates significant roster or staff turnover, merely acknowledging “in due time, I’ll sit down and evaluate the whole season.”
No matter how long the look, the results won’t appear appealing. That’s especially true of Saturday’s second half, which at one featured the the Terps enjoying their largest lead of the season and ended with Maryland shuffling back to its team buses as the Carter-Finley Stadium scoreboard helpfully directed fans to a website to purchase bowl tickets.
That wasn’t going to be an option for Maryland and its fans on Saturday. It wasn’t on the table for the last three weeks. But it didn’t soothe any of the pain of arguably the worst loss in one of the school’s worst seasons.
“We come out here and play hard and do what we need to do and just dropped the ball,” Hartsfield lamented.
—- Patrick Stevens