WHEN THE University of Maryland's football team took the field last Saturday in Baltimore, it had a surprise for the crowd. Instead of the usual color scheme of red and white, the Terps wore black -- black jerseys, red pants, gold-and-white trim. Most sportswriters took prominent note of the change, but had little reason to dwell on it. Their job, after all, is reporting on the play -- pass completions, turnovers, field position -- not fashion.

Let us venture a guess, though, that for many of the 62,000 people in Memorial Stadium Saturday, the Terps' emergence in colors they had last worn 41 years ago was the most memorable event of the afternoon, and an example of why people who aren't all that interested in the game itself still like to go out and see college kids play football.

For the college game is as much an atmosphere as it is a sport. It's a mix of nostalgia and youthful enthusiasm that draws generation after generation back to it, even those who may never have noticed that their team isn't playing out of the single-wing formation anymore. Each is drawn by individual associations with football afternoons: the changing of the leaves, the smell of the season's first wood fires, memories of friendships at a good time in one's life, the band music, chants, cheers, card sections, colors. And all this gives the game itself -- despite its increasingly professional aspect -- a touch of excitement and improbability that still sets it apart from the pros.

This is an atmosphere in which a change of colors can bring a surge of emotion, and that is exactly what Maryland was seeking against Penn State on Saturday when it resurrected the four colors of the state flag -- the black, red, gold and white worn by the university's athletic teams for many years. For a time it seemed to be working; the Terps charged out in their black jerseys and, before a roaring crowd, scored the first two times they had the ball. "I didn't think the stadium could hold us," said a Maryland player.

In the end, of course, Penn State prevailed, 21-16, running its winning streak against Maryland to 23 games. But years from now many a man or woman who was there will look back and remember neither that extraordinary number nor the score, but only a pleasant November day, a close game, a good time and the sight of bold new/old colors against a field of green.