CHAPEL HILL, N.C. | Maryland’s season arrived at its appointed conclusion early Saturday evening.
It did not end successfully. It also didn’t end without a play-to-the-end run at a victory.
Both were in keeping with the Terrapins’ season-long arc.
Maryland’s finale was a riveting 45-38 loss to North Carolina at Kenan Stadium, a squandered double-digit lead in the second half providing a reminder of a Research Triangle meltdown to cap last season.
The similarities ended there for the Terps (4-8, 2-6 ACC), who lost their final six games but proved plenty feisty even after yielding 24 straight points to the potent Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3).
“Nobody on our team is going to lay down for anybody,” defensive end A.J. Francis said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re down 40 or 14 or four. We’re just going to fight to the end and that’s just how we are. That’s the kind of guys we have.”
For all their pluckiness, the Terps weren’t in position to win much over the final month of the season. They were down linebacker Demetrius Hartsfield on defense, and star defensive end Joe Vellano wasn’t his usual self because of a bum ankle.
Matters were worse, of course, on offense. Maryland was down to its fifth quarterback (linebacker Shawn Petty) and also went without one of its top rushers (Wes Brown) and receivers (Marcus Leak).
So while it wasn’t a surprise when the hard-luck Terps chugged along resiliently even after falling behind 14-0, it was eye-opening they actually were on the receiving end of some good fortune.
Maryland tied it with 21 seconds before halftime when, out of a timeout, wideout Stefon Diggs found tight end Matt Furstenburg for an 8-yard score. North Carolina fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Petty connected with Kevin Dorsey on a 28-yard touchdown on the next play.
The fired-up Terps grew their lead when Diggs brought back the kickoff to open the second half 99 yards for a touchdown, a 21-point blitz in just 34 seconds to build a 35-21 lead.
“Every game means something to these kids,” coach Randy Edsall said defiantly. “It didn’t matter that we didn’t have a shot at a bowl. That’s what this program is built on.”
It is a commendable trait, one certain to help Maryland as it ventures forward with a youthful roster that secured invaluable (and sometimes painful) experience this fall.
It also doesn’t fully make up for a lack of depth.
North Carolina needed a minute to respond with a touchdown. A little more than two minutes later, the Terps’ lead was gone. And by the time the third quarter came to a close, the Tar Heels were up 45-35.
Maryland’s offense had rolled up 304 yards offense in the first half, more than in seven of its previous 11 full games. In the Terps’ first four possessions of the second half, they ran 14 plays for minus-7 yards.
It was the one obvious blot (besides a first-quarter interception) on Petty’s best day as Maryland’s emergency quarterback. He completed 16 of 35 attempts for 208 yards and a touchdown.
“I felt this is the best game we’ve had offensively since we had Shawn Petty at quarterback,” wideout Nigel King said. “We had a couple good games, but this is probably the most consistent we’ve had. I feel like after Stefon scored on that kickoff return after the first half, I felt like we had it and we just had to keep it consistent. But the first few drives, we didn’t really get much going.”
Ultimately, the Terps would manage a protracted, 15-play drive for a field goal to make it a one possession game. It was preceded by the Maryland defense forcing a pair of punts.
Yes, there was a similarity to the conclusion of last season, but it was merely on the surface. This Maryland team, however severe its limitations, did not listlessly arrive at the end of a three-month slog, did not enter the offseason with a whimper as it did a year ago at N.C. State.
The Terps didn’t win Saturday, just as they hadn’t in a half-dozen games since Oct. 13. Their year ended on Thanksgiving weekend for the third time in four years.
But they didn’t go quietly, either.
“They left it on the field,” Edsall said. “There’s nobody that should have any regrets. Sometimes, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s just what this program is and it’s what it’s going to be.”
—- Patrick Stevens