COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — In a few days or so, perhaps No. 21 North Carolina State will feel good about winning eight games and coming so very close to playing for the Atlantic Coast Conference title.
On Saturday night, however, the Wolfpack had absolutely no sense of accomplishment.
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Danny O’Brien threw for a career-high 417 yards and four touchdowns, all to Torrey Smith, and Maryland denied North Carolina State a spot in the ACC championship game by defeating the Wolfpack 38-31.
Needing a victory to win the league’s Atlantic Division, the Wolfpack (8-4, 5-3) scored touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead. But the Terrapins (8-4, 5-3) rallied behind O’Brien, who made up for a running game that finished with negative yardage.
North Carolina State ended up in a second-place tie with Maryland behind Florida State, which will face Virginia Tech in the championship game on Dec. 5.
Asked to assess the mood in the locker room, Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien said, “They’re really crushed. I don’t think they fully comprehend what a great year they’ve really had, when you look at eight wins, the history of our school and how many times it’s been done.”
That was of no consolation to the Wolfpack in the wake of such a devastating defeat.
“We had a chance to contend for the ACC title. We lost it,” linebacker Nate Irving said.
“We didn’t step up to the plate like we should have,” defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy said.
The Terrapins finished with exactly the same record as N.C. State, yet they couldn’t have been happier.
“I think we finally took that step, getting a signature win,” Danny O’Brien said. “Hopefully we can keep rolling. We got what we wanted: We put ourselves in good position to get a good bowl game, and hopefully we play a good team and get another signature win.”
O’Brien, a redshirt freshman, completed 33 of 47 passes in the first 400-yard game by a Terp quarterback since Scott Milanovich in 1993.
“The poise and the accuracy he had tonight, that’s one of the better performances I’ve seen as a quarterback. Very impressive,” coach Ralph Friedgen said.
Smith had a career-high 14 catches for 224 yards and became the first Maryland player with four touchdown receptions in a single game.
“We kind of saw early on that he was kind of hot, so we just wanted to feed the hot hand,” Terps offensive coordinator James Franklin said. “We weren’t able to run the ball consistently enough, so at some point you’re just going to go with what’s working.”
Smith scored on passes of 11, 10, 12 and 71 yards. The last touchdown came with 6:26 left immediately after Maryland’s Drew Gloster sacked Russell Wilson on a fourth-down play from the Maryland 8 with the Terrapins ahead 31-17.
Wilson scored on a 1-yard run with 2:39 remaining. The Wolfpack recovered the onside kick and Wilson threw a TD pass with 1:16 left, but Maryland pounced on the ensuing onside kick.
“We fought at the end, which is definitely huge for our team,” Wilson said. “Now we have to get ready for the bowl game.”
Wilson went 31 of 60 for 311 yards and a touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the Wolfpack from absorbing their third straight defeat at Maryland since 2004. The Terrapins finished 5-1 at home and can expect to play in a quality bowl game after going 2-10 last year.
A stiff wind heavily influenced the kicking game. In the second quarter, Wolfpack punter Andy Leffler got off a 12-yarder, Maryland’s Travis Baltz misfired on a 37-yard field goal try and N.C. State’s Josh Czajowski had a field goal try blocked.
On the positive side, Baltz had the wind behind him when he kicked a career-long 52-yard field goal to put the Terrapins up 17-14 at halftime.
Maryland made it 24-14 in the third quarter when O’Brien capped an 80-yard drive with a pass to Smith, who wriggled free in the left side of the end zone. O’Brien completed four passes on the drive, including three to Smith for 44 yards.
The Wolfpack answered with a 31-yard field goal to end a 13-play drive. But O’Brien went 3 for 3 in a three-play march that made it 31-17 with 11:46 to go.
All four touchdowns in the first half were scored by the team with the wind at its back.
Wilson ran for a 2-yard touchdown and threw a 15-yard TD pass to Owen Spencer. The Terrapins countered with a short touchdown run by D. J. Smith and O’Brien’s first TD pass to Smith.