Jerry Claiborne came to College Park in 1972, inheriting a program that hadn’t posted a winning season in ten years and gone 9-33 over the previous five seasons. Claiborne made immediate improvement, going 5-5-1. In 1973, the Terps went to a bowl game. In 1974 and 1975, they won consecutive ACC championships. The 1976 Maryland football team went one step further—a third straight conference crown, an undefeated regular season and the program’s first major bowl bid since 1955
The ’76 Terrapins were anchored by a defense that ranked second in the nation in points allowed. Joe Campbell was an All-American defensive tackle and would be a top 10 pick in the NFL draft.
Offensively, Maryland was strong in the trenches, with Ed Fulton, Tom Shick and Dave Conrad leading a solid line that cleared the way for a balanced running game. Alvin Maddox, Steve Wilson, and Tim Wilson each rushed for over 600 yards. Quarterback Mark Manges ran for 448 yards himself.
Manges also completed 59 percent of his passes, a high percentage in this era of college football and generated over eight yards per attempt. The Terps didn’t throw a lot, but they could do it well enough to move the ball.
Maryland opened up the season with a tune-up 31-7 win over Richmond. A road trip to mediocre West Virginia produced a 24-3 win. The defense was a little leaky on the road against a bad Syracuse team, but the offense delivered more than enough points. The final was 42-28. The run through a series of Eastern independents concluded with a 20-9 win over a respectable Villanova team that was still playing Division I football. At 4-0, the Terps were up to #7 in the national polls.
ACC play began with a road date against N.C. State. Maryland beat a bad team 16-6. There was enough fluidity at the top of college football this season, that this was still enough to move them to #5 in the rankings.
There were only seven teams in the ACC at this time, and everyone played just five conference games. The team that would cycle off the Maryland schedule this year was North Carolina. As it turned out, the Tar Heels were the only other conference team that would have a good team. And it made the events of October 16 decisive in the league race.
Maryland was a hefty 17-point home favorite over Wake Forest. The Terp offense was struggling, holding a 14-7 lead into the fourth quarter. A blocked punt set up a field goal, and Maryland ended up winning 17-15. North Carolina was not so fortunate—the Tar Heels lost at home to N.C. State. It would be UNC’s only league loss.
The Terrapins got the offense opened up at Duke in a 30-3 win. That set up a sequence of two big non-conference home games. Kentucky was on its way to a share of the SEC title. Cincinnati would end up with a strong eight-win season. The Wildcats and Bearcats were the biggest roadblocks in the way of Maryland’s undefeated campaign.
Kentucky got on the board with a first-quarter touchdown pass. Manges answered with a ten-yard touchdown run, but a missed extra point kept the Terps trailing 7-6. Dean Richards made the turning point play—a 49-yard punt return that set up the go-ahead touchdown. The Maryland running game began to take over. Maddox ran for 129 yards. Wilson added 81 and scored twice. The Terps won 24-14.
Cincinnati had a terrific defense themselves, one that would rank sixth in the nation for points allowed. But the Terp’s D was about to kick into high gear. They hung a 21-0 shutout on the Bearcats. Another whitewashing, 20-zip over Clemson secured at least a share of the conference championship. And the year ended with a third straight shutout—28-0 at Virginia. Maryland was the outright ACC champs, 11-0 and ranked #6.
There was no realistic path to the national championship. Pitt was also undefeated, the Panthers were ranked #1 and with wins over Notre Dame and Penn State, garnered more respect nationally than did Maryland. The lack of respect for the ACC generally also kept the Terps behind one-loss contenders—notably USC and Michigan, who would play each other in the Rose Bowl.
Even so, the Cotton Bowl came calling. Maryland would travel to Dallas to play Houston, the champions of the old Southwest Conference.
On an icy cold day in Dallas, Maryland just started too slowly. Houston drove for an early touchdown. A blocked punt and fumble set up two more Cougar TDs. The Terps were in a 21-0 hole before even settling in.
They still fought back. Manges ran for two touchdowns, threw for another, and closed the gap to 27-21 by the third quarter. The defense had Houston backed up deep in its own end, facing a third down. But a long pass completion broke the momentum, the Cougars drove for a field goal, and the 30-21 score held to the end.
Maryland still finished #8 in the final polls. To put this 1976 season in perspective, the Terps have only made one major bowl game—the Orange, following the 2001 season—in the years since. They have never finished in the final top 10. The spirit of ’76 is what has to carry the football fans in College Park.