Yep, right on schedule: The leaves have started to fall and so has North Carolina's football team. The much-anticipated annual event occurred Saturday at Maryland's Byrd Stadium, where the previously undefeated and No. 3-ranked Tar Heels fell to the Terrapins 28-26 in front of 51,200 fans and a variety of folks in the press box wearing brightly colored jackets. But, once again, the representatives from the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta bowls probably wasted their time by coming to see Carolina.
It was the second straight year that Maryland burst the balloon; North Carolina was 5-1 and rated ninth by SI last year when the Terps went to Chapel Hill and scored a 31-24 victory. Hello, Sun Bowl. In 1981 South Carolina soundly upset (31-13) an undefeated Tar Heel team in the seventh week of the season. Hello, Gator Bowl. In 1980 Oklahoma administered a 41-7 beating to the 7-0 Heels. Hello, Bluebonnet Bowl. Must be something about this time of year that spooks the Tar Heels, who haven't gone to a major bowl since 1950.
But Maryland, now 7-1, just might be playing some football on Jan. 2. Even if the Terrapins don't upset fourth-ranked Auburn on the road this Saturday, they're still in line for a big bowl, most likely the Fiesta. They have a solid defense, an imaginative offense with two outstanding running backs—Willie Joyner and Rick Badanjek—and the kind of personality that bowl people love in Quarterback Norman Julius Esiason, a.k.a. Boomer.
With his team trailing Carolina 17-10 at halftime, Esiason sat down and had a talk with himself, which isn't unusual because he's usually having a talk with someone. "Boomer," said Esiason, "this is the last one [his last home game]. Boomer, you're going to go out and win it or lose it. Boomer, it's up to you."
And he was up to it. On the first series of the second half Esiason—a lefty, of course—marched Maryland 79 yards for a touchdown. Twenty-four of those yards came on an exquisite roll-right pass to Wide Receiver Greg Hill that notarized Esiason's credentials as a first-round draft pick. The touchdown came on a 14-yard pass to Badanjek, who followed a crushing downfield block by Right Guard Shawn Benson into the end zone. In the Terps' Friday night team meeting, Coach Bobby Ross had discussed the possibility of using a fake kick, so Esiason wasn't surprised when Placekicker Jess Atkinson brought in that play. Esiason, the holder, rolled to his left and found Tight End Chris Knight in the back of the end zone for the two-pointer that gave Maryland an 18-17 lead.
That became a 21-17 margin some nine minutes later after a 19-yard Atkinson field goal. The Terrapins had gotten the ball back when Clarence Baldwin intercepted a poorly thrown pass by North Carolina Quarterback Scott Stankavage, who had come into the game as the nation's third most efficient passer. Stankavage had a better day statistically (19 of 35 for 211 yards) than Esiason (10 of 20 for 137), but he doesn't have Esiason's rifle arm or his penchant for making the big, dramatic strike.
Which is just what Esiason did late in the third quarter, when he threw a 24-yard clothesline of a touchdown pass to freshman Sean Sullivan in the far corner of the end zone on a broken play. That gave Maryland a 28-17 lead. This time the Terps had gotten the ball on a fumble by Carolina return man Mark Smith at his team's 30, and Esiason made the Tar Heels pay immediately for that miscue. Though his running backs were in the wrong alignment, Esiason espied his secondary receiver, Sullivan, streaking toward the corner after beating Free Safety Steve Hendrickson.
North Carolina finally got its offense back together in the fourth period. With Maryland easing, perhaps unconsciously, into a premature prevent, Stankavage completed five passes in a row and sent Tailback Ethan Horton into the line for steady yardage. But two outstanding defensive efforts—Left Halfback Lendell Jones's diving breakup of a Stankavage pass and Outside Linebacker J.D. Gross's third-down stop of Horton for a two-yard loss—forced the Heels to settle for Brooks Barwick's 22-yard field goal. That made it 28-20 with 10:16 remaining.
The Heels didn't get three points the next time down the field, though they might well have gotten that or more. North Carolina had been in good shape with a second-and-four at the Maryland 16, and with more than eight minutes left, it seemed to be an excellent spot to use the 6'4", 220-pound junior blockbuster Horton, who had gained 59 yards in the second half to that juncture. Instead, Stankavage threw two incompletions, and they were followed by Barwick's wide-right miss from the 16. Oddly, Tar Heel Coach Dick Crum hadn't even run Horton until Carolina's final possession in the second quarter; he'd left the running to senior Tyrone Anthony, who is good but not as good as Horton.
Both Horton, who had two catches for 24 yards, and Tight End Arnold Franklin, who had three for 56, were effective during North Carolina's final desperate scoring drive, which ended in Anthony's one-yard dive with only 22 seconds left. Maryland 28, North Carolina 26. The game, possibly the ACC title, possibly a major bowl bid, would come down to a single two-point conversion.