CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Maryland picked up the win it so desperately needed yesterday at Kenan Stadium. The only problem was the energy the team expended to earn it.
Sure, the Terrapins were happy to escape with a 33-30 overtime victory over North Carolina, a game that pushes them close to a much-desired postseason bid. But as much as anything else, Maryland was glad it was simply over.
“I’ve had a lot of these games like this, but I don’t think ever felt as drained as I am now,” Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said. “It’s on empty.”
He had plenty of reasons. The Terps hadn’t won in more than a month, and had two weeks to ponder a second-half meltdown against a Florida State team that has since been exposed as extremely mortal. And there was the suspension of three undisclosed players stemming from a Nov.1 fight at a College Park bar.
Quarterback Sam Hollenbach hadn’t played for most of a game in more than three weeks, and rustiness was likely to be an issue. And there was some lingering doubt Maryland could finally close out a tight game after enduring meltdown after meltdown.
Those concerns all proved valid to some degree yesterday, but the Terps (5-4, 3-3 ACC) still were left celebrating when North Carolina kicker Connor Barth missed a 38-yard field goal in overtime to cap a game in which the Terps produced an impressive comeback and almost delivered what has become a trademark late-game lapse.
“I’m sure a lot of them are feeling like I am, just beat down,” Friedgen said. “We put a lot into this game to be successful. I’m just really proud of how the kids responded, and that’s the best thing that could have come out of this whole thing.”
While yesterday exhausted both Friedgen and his players, it also figures to rejuvenate them for the final two weeks. Maryland must win only one of its final two games — Saturday’s home finale against Boston College and next week’s trip to N.C. State — to become bowl eligible, and the victory over the Tar Heels (4-5, 3-3) makes the road to the postseason far easier to navigate.
A win-or-else situation would have been made worse by cornerback Josh Wilson’s likely absence next week. Wilson suffered a concussion early in the fourth quarter, and though he traveled home with the team, Friedgen said “there is a good chance” he will not play against Boston College.
“We didn’t want to lose,” said tight end Vernon Davis, who caught seven passes for 139 yards and a touchdown. “We knew if we lost it would make it harder on ourselves to become bowl eligible. We didn’t want to put the stress on ourselves that we really had to win these last two games. It’s a relief.”
Wilson departed with the Terps trailing 20-17, a deficit that grew to 10 with 9:07 left when Carolina’s Kareen Taylor returned Hollenbach’s interception 25 yards for a touchdown. It was the second time the Tar Heels cashed in on one of the quarterback’s errors — they scored a play after a Hollenbach interception in the first half — in his first full game back after separating his collarbone Oct.20.
Hollenbach needed three plays to get the points back. He barely evaded Carolina end Kentwan Balmer before hitting receiver Jo Jo Walker in stride on a post pattern for a 67-yard touchdown.
Maryland yielded a few first downs before forcing the Tar Heels to punt. The Terps took over at the 20, and Hollenbach found wideout Danny Melendez along the right sideline. Melendez had faked out Carolina’s Bryan Bethea on his route and cruised in for a touchdown.
“I didn’t want them to kind of shut down,” said Hollenbach, who completed 19 of 31 passes for a career-high 374 yards and three touchdowns. “I really felt there was a lot time left in the fourth quarter and I just wanted a chance to get back in the game.”
Maryland’s Milton Harris (career-high 16 tackles) forced a fumble on Carolina’s next possession, but the Terps quickly punted it back to the Tar Heels. Quarterback Matt Baker brought the Tar Heels to the Maryland 7 before settling for a Barth field goal with nine seconds left.
Dan Ennis kicked a 28-yarder in overtime, leaving it to the defense to hold the Tar Heels back. The Terps ceded 4 yards before a high snap helped derail Barth’s attempt to tie it.
While Hollenbach’s gaudy numbers were a product of an eventful fourth quarter, tailback Lance Ball sustained Maryland in the first half. The sophomore rushed for 161 yards (111 before halftime) on a career-high 39 carries, leaving him as exhausted as anyone in the Terps’ locker room.
“I’m tired, but mostly I’m just drained out,” Ball said. “My brain is just drained out. There were ups and downs, the ball was going this way and that way. It was a crazy game.”
Note — Friedgen said injury — not suspension — was the reason wide receiver Drew Weatherly did not play. Weatherly (concussion) did not make the trip to Chapel Hill.