Two weeks ago, North Carolina suffered its only loss of the season at Kenan Stadium against Georgia Tech after the Yellow Jackets returned the second-half kickoff for a touchdown en route to 30 points in the third quarter and a 68-50 victory.
The second half started in a similar fashion Saturday for the Tar Heels, when Maryland’s Stefon Diggs returned the kickoff 99 yards to give the Terrapins a 35-21 lead.
But instead of another third-quarter collapse, UNC rallied for 24 unanswered points to take a 45-35 lead into the fourth quarter of its 45-38 victory against Maryland.
“All we talked about at halftime was playing with some energy,” coach Larry Fedora said. “You can’t play without passion.”
In the process, the Tar Heels (8-4, 5-3 ACC) clinched a share of the ACC Coastal Division championship.
“To be Coastal Division champs, and that’s the way we’ll look at it, we’re very proud of this football team,” Fedora said. “It means everything to us; it gives us a lot of momentum going into the offseason.”
UNC scored on its first drive of the half when Quinshad Davis turned a 6-yard hitch route into a 50-yard touchdown, his second of the day, to cut Maryland’s lead to 35-28.
“I don’t know about go-to receiver, but he (Renner) is coming to me a lot more now,” Davis said.
Davis’ touchdown was the fourth touchdown in 67 seconds of game time, after Maryland scored two touchdowns just before halftime.
Davis reached 100 receiving yards for the third consecutive game and moved into second place for receptions by an ACC freshman behind Clemson’s Sammy Watkins.
“I’m always competing to be number one, but to be second all-time, that means a lot,” Davis said. “At first, I was doing what they told me to do, but now I’m doing what I know I can do.”
Renner threw his fifth touchdown pass of the day two minutes later, tying the UNC single-game record and his career-high set earlier this year at Louisville, on a 15-yard fade to Erik Highsmith.
UNC’s defense held strong against the Terrapins in the third quarter, allowing only one first down.
“We came together and wanted to come out with some fire,” said safety Darien Rankin, who had an interception in the first quarter. “Our leaders Kevin Reddick and Sylvester (Williams), they made us come out with that fire.”
After a Thomas Moore field goal gave the Tar Heels a 38-35 lead, Giovani Bernard scored on a 1-yard run to conclude scoring in the third quarter. With the score, Bernard and fellow running back A.J. Blue set a UNC single-season record with 29 combined touchdowns.
Had the Tar Heels been eligible for postseason play, they would have played Florida State in next week’s ACC Championship Game.
“We dealt with it the day we were told,” Fedora said. “We found that out back in April, and we talked about it as a team, and everybody got to express their disappointment at that time.”
The Tar Heels owned the tiebreaker against Miami because of their win against the Hurricanes on Oct. 13. UNC also would have won the tiebreaker against Georgia Tech because of the Tar Heels’ better record against the divisional opponent with the best conference record: Virginia Tech.
UNC defeated Virginia Tech on Oct. 6, while the Yellow Jackets lost to the Hokies in their season opener.