"Obviously, it's a very disappointing loss, but we didn't play well enough to win the game," UNC head coach Butch Davis said during his postgame press conference.
Even though North Carolina (7-3, 3-3 ACC) held a 15-14 lead at halftime, this game felt as though it was Maryland's to lose. In miserably wet conditions, the Terrapins (7-3, 4-2 ACC) managed to convert 9 of its 18 third-down conversions in totaling 27 first downs, while soaking up 40 minutes and 29 seconds of the game clock. Clemson was the last UNC opponent to crack the 40-minute mark in time of possession, way back in 1992.
North Carolina countered with just 11 first downs and were a ghastly 1-of-11 on third downs.
"You've got to give Maryland a great deal of credit – they did some things tonight that are certainly conducive to winning tough football games," Davis said. "They were able to run the football, they did a great job on third-down conversions and we didn't take advantage of some great field position."
The Tar Heels failed to capitalize on two great opportunities in the final 18 minutes. Following a 44-yard halfback pass from Bobby Rome to Brooks Foster that moved North Carolina into the red zone, Casey Barth missed a 28-yard field goal attempt when the ball careened off the left upright.
Five plays later, Jordan Hemby drilled backup quarterback Josh Portis to force a fumble that Quinton Coples recovered at the Maryland 33-yard line, but UNC was unable to advance the ball and ended up punting.
It didn't help that Cam Sexton suffered arguably his worst performance of the season, missing numerous open targets in completing 10-of-24 passes for 166 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
"I don't really know," Sexton replied when asked about his play. "I didn't have a good day. I didn't play very well. I just couldn't get into a rhythm. I had a bad day."
The red-shirt junior's touchdown came on a 59-yard pass to Cooter Arnold that was tipped by Kenny Tate, giving the Tar Heels a 12-7 lead late in the first quarter. A botched punt snap by Maryland's Andrew Schmitt provided North Carolina with a safety on the Terrapins' opening possession, and Barth added a 38-yarder to give his squad a 5-0 working margin.
The storyline entering Saturday's contest was Maryland's porous run defense (152.3 ypg ranked 11th in the ACC) against North Carolina's tailback tandem of Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston (687 yards and seven touchdowns in the last five games).
But during last week's game preparations, Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen implemented significant changes along his defensive line, and the adjustments worked to near perfection, as the Tar Heel duo combined for 35 yards on 11 carries in the first half and finished with 75 yards on 26 rushes.
The Terrapins were the ones that assumed the enforcer role on Saturday, bullying the UNC front seven and providing Da'Rel Scott (129 yards on 29 carries, 1 TD) and Davin Meggett (86 yards on 13 carries, 1 TD) with plenty of room to operate. But North Carolina held the turtle combo to 68 yards in the second half, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity to escape College Park with a victory.
"They came out in the first half running the ball, and they were gashing us a little bit," said Bruce Carter, who joined fellow linebackers Quan Sturdivant (12) and Mark Paschal (10) with double-digit tackles with 11. "But we went in during halftime and made some adjustments. When we came back out, we were stopping the run pretty good, but the problem with us was that we couldn't get off the field on third or fourth down."
North Carolina's success this season has been directly related to its ability to win the turnover battle, posting a plus-1.44 margin. But for the third time in three losses, the Tar Heels committed more turnovers (2) than it forced (1). Maryland outgained UNC, 336 to 285 in total offense.
The Tar Heels answered Meggett's one-yard touchdown run in the second quarter with another Barth 28-yard field goal, tallying all of the scoring until the Terrapins mammoth 8-minute, 43-second final drive that featured three third-down conversions and a critical Chris Turner 9-yard scamper on a 4th-and-5 deep in UNC territory.
While North Carolina's ACC title hopes are not completely extinguished, it needs losses from Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech in the final two weeks of the season to sneak back into Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
"There's a lot of steps that go into building a program, and not all of them are vertical," Davis said. "Not all of them go up. We'll learn something from this ball game. We've got a bunch of kids in that locker room that are hurting right now, but there's a lot to play for. And I think that emotionally and psychologically, they'll bounce back and we'll be ready to play well next week."
The players better be ready next week, as instate rival N.C. State rolls into town riding a two-game winning streak over Duke and Wake Forest.