- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

There seems no obvious end to the Maryland football team’s ability to conjure surprises.

After the Terrapins‘ latest shocker, they find themselves on the precipice of yet another: an opportunity to play for an ACC title.

Maryland yet again summoned the unexpected, producing a clock-vanquishing field goal drive late in the fourth quarter to stun No. 17 North Carolina 17-15 Saturday at Byrd Stadium to move closer to an Atlantic Division championship.

The Terps (7-3, 4-2) can clinch a spot in the Dec. 6 ACC title game with victories in their last two games. But it’s also possible with a win next week against Florida State and a Boston College loss at Wake Forest on Saturday. Maryland plays at Boston College on Nov. 29.

“We keep fan interest better than tabloids,” defensive coordinator Chris Cosh said.

No kidding. The Terps matched a school record with their sixth straight victory against a ranked opponent, secured when Obi Egekeze kicked a 26-yard field goal with 1:42 remaining and Jamari McCollough intercepted a Cam Sexton pass moments later.

The fashion was improbable, both because of Maryland’s dominance of possession and the Tar Heels‘ ability to exploit the Terps’ miscues early on. Maryland, after all, saw Dewey Schmitt launch a snap far over punter Travis Baltz’s head for a safety. The Terps yielded a long touchdown toss despite tipping the pass just in front of receiver Cooter Arnold. And down merely a point, quarterback Josh Portis surrendered a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter to hand North Carolina (7-3, 3-3) possession close to field goal range.

“I was thinking it wasn’t our day when all that stuff was happening,” coach Ralph Friedgen said.

But it was, somehow. It was because Maryland established a dominant rushing attack, with Da’Rel Scott (129 yards) and Davin Meggett (86 yards) both collecting first-half scores as the Terps rebounded from a ghastly output of minus 12 yards to roll up 195 yards on the Tar Heels.

It was because quarterback Chris Turner made third-down throws when needed and extended his streak of attempts without an interception against ranked teams to 168. And then there was a stout defense yielding 75 rushing yards to the Tar Heels a little more than a week after being torn asunder for 273 yards.

Yet nothing was as significant to the Terps as their virtual monopoly of possession - 40:29, their most since a 2004 game at Duke. Sure, North Carolina technically controlled the ball for almost a third of the game. But it ultimately meant little in the final quarter, when Maryland was prepared for nearly anything.

“We got a lot of rest,” McCollough said. “We were sitting down for a while watching the game. It really helped us out, because while we were on the bench, we could go over different things and what to look out for and what was coming on the next play.”

Of course, Maryland’s offense had to produce after seven straight fruitless possessions as well. It responded with perhaps its finest moment of the season, grinding through 19 plays and almost nine minutes to seize the lead and leave North Carolina with little time to operate.

Three times, Turner found reliable receivers Danny Oquendo or Ronnie Tyler for a third-down conversion. Faced with a fourth down, Turner scrambled for 9 yards to extend a drive. And even when the Terps lost a third-down reception to the North Carolina 1 as replay officials ruminated over the video evidence, it actually gave Egekeze a better angle for his winning kick.

“It was a lot of luck, but it kind of felt like it was meant to be,” Turner said. “A lot of it had to do with the defense. The defense did a really good job. We had turnovers and three-and-outs, but the defense was so big at one point I thought, ‘We’re going to win this because of the defense. All we need to have is one more point than UNC and the defense is going to get it done.’”

Turner and the offense were generous; they offered a two-point edge for their defense to defend. And with Sexton - a pedestrian 10-for-24 for 166 yards - inactive for about a half-hour, it was left to defensive end Mack Frost to deliver a crucial sack the play before McCollough’s interception.

It was the final flourish for a unit that held the Tar Heels scoreless in nine of their last 10 possessions and yielded only 105 total yards in the second half.

“The offense had drives, but the defense kept themselves off the field,” Friedgen said.

It was an unexpected turnaround, but perhaps one not so shocking for a team with six consecutive victories after losses dating to last season - including four against ranked teams.

“Beat a ranked opponent, undefeated at Byrd … no one thinks we can do it,” linebacker Moise Fokou said. “I don’t know how we’re doing, but we’re getting it done. I’m so happy we still have a chance at this thing. We hold our destiny in our hands.”

Perhaps that’s the biggest surprise of all.

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