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November 15, 2008COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Standing in a tent just off the field at Byrd Stadium, North Carolina quarterback Cam Sexton looked dazed as he grasped for an explanation he couldn't seem to get his hands on.
"I don't have answers for you because I don't have answers for myself," Sexton said.
Answers or not, the reality for the No. 17 Tar Heels was that their 17-15 loss to Maryland ousted them from the driver's seat in the ACC's Coastal Division race and likely cost them a chance to play in the league's championship game in December.
"It eats at you," senior linebacker Mark Paschal said. "The fact that we had a great opportunity and didn't capitalize frustrating. We had the situation we wanted with three weeks left."
It took a lot of smaller missed opportunities for the Tar Heels (7-3, 3-3 in the ACC) to squander the larger one against the Terrapins (7-3, 4-2), who have won all six of their home games this year.
With the only second-half points for either team coming on Obi Egekeze's game-winning 26-yard field goal with 1:42 to play, it was clear that Carolina let a few potential scoring chances pass it by.
There was Casey Barth's missed 28-yard field goal attempt, which clanged off the left upright near the end of the third quarter.
There was the fumble recovered by UNC defensive end Quinton Coples on the first play of the fourth quarter that Carolina couldn't turn into points despite starting at Maryland's 33-yard line.
First, Greg Little dropped what would've been an easy first down, and then UNC coach Butch Davis elected not to attempt a 50-yard field goal, instead opting for a punt that ended up netting nine yards.
"The kicker wasn't kicking 54 yards in the pre-game with heavy, wet balls and the air and stuff," Davis said. "It was just out of his range."
On UNC's next possession, Sexton tried to scramble for a first down on third-and-3 but chose the wrong direction after picking up a block from Hakeem Nicks and came up a yard short.
The Tar Heels punted, and the next time they got the ball back they were trailing for the first time since early in the second quarter.
North Carolina came into the game converting 44 percent of its third-down chances but was a season-low 1 for 11 against Maryland.
Maryland on the other hand, had no trouble making plays when it counted, converting four third downs and a fourth down on its game-winning drive.
"We couldn't get off the field," defensive tackle Marvin Austin said.
With the Terps eating all that clock, Carolina was in desperation mode for its last possession, which ended when Sexton - who called the loss "easily the worst football game I've played this year" - threw an interception downfield while looking for Nicks.
Maryland tailbacks Da'Rel Scott and Davin Meggett combined for 147 rushing yards and both Maryland touchdowns in the first half, which nearly offset Sexton's 59-yard touchdown pass to Cooter Arnold, a safety and two Barth field goals.
Clinging to a 15-14 lead, Paschal said the Tar Heels "got back to basics" in the second half to slow the Terps running attack, but Scott still finished with 129 yards, while Meggett added 86.
All told Maryland controlled the ball for 40 minutes - the first team to do that against Carolina since Clemson in 1992 - racking up almost nine of those on the 19-play game-winning drive.
"That's our job as coaches, to put those fires out," said Davis. "They had a few plays we never got a handle on."
The result was the Tar Heels losing their grip on the fast track to the ACC Championship game. Just as quickly as Virginia Tech's loss Thursday night opened the door for UNC, the missed chances here slammed it shut.
Now it will take a miraculous shuffling of the standings for the Tar Heels to end up in Tampa.
But when it came to where Carolina goes from here, that was one question Sexton did have an answer for.
"We're not out of it by any means," Sexton said. "This is when this team plays well. We rebound better than anybody."