Coach Joe Paterno, after 27 years at Penn State, including the last 12 as head coach, has given his Nittany Lions a facelift. They have gone from a basically conservative outfit to a wide-open, do-anything-to-score bunch that has this area buzzing with excitement.

Penn State, ranked fifth in both wire-service polls, comes into Saturday's televised game WJAL-TV-7 against Maryland with impressive victories over Rutgers, 45-7, and Houston, 31-14.

Going into this season, Paterno had a winning percentage of .812, best among major college coaches. He achieved it with one basic defense and a conservative offense.

When Paterno had Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell, Penn State ran from the I formation. With less-talented people, he grudingly switched to the wing T in 1974-75 and compiled a 19-5 record.

Last season was a disaster as Paterno went back to the I, compiling a 7-5 record. Penn State hadn't lost that many games in one season since Paterno's first year as head coach in 1966.

"Last year wasn't much fun," Paterno said. "I wasn't prepared and it was bad. I was running around doing too much in the offseason. We changed a lot of things that weren't thought out well enough beforehand."

The coach vowed to never go through that again. So he changed his offense and defense.

"We went into this season with the idea that we had a good enough quarterback (Chuch Fusina) to force the defense to spread out. The more you can make the defense spread out, the better you're going to be. When you've got skilled people and better athletes, you can do that sort of thing. We have those kinds of people now."

This time the changes have been well thought out, and the results could very well have a profound effect on who ends up as the top college team this year. Gone is the Paterno 4-4 - the Penn State defense of the last decade. In is the 5-2. The offense is a wide-open one rarely having been seen here before.

In the romps over Rutgers and Houston, Penn State rolled up 1,025 yards total offense. The Lions say they are just starting to feel comfortable.

Penn State changed its defense because, as linebacker coach and defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky said, "The 5-2 fits our personnel better. We felt we had to do a better job of controlling the line of scrimmage than we did last year. We decided we had to put some of our linebackers down."

The man who makes it go for Penn State is quarterback Fusina, who is neither fast nor flashy. But his mind is alway working. He tries to keep the defense off balance.

"We have backs who can catch the ball and we can go inside or out. We can just do so many things," Fusina said.

"We didn't win one big game last year," he added, "and that hurt. We've already won one (Houston) and we plan to win more. We proved we can win the big ones again."

Fusina has completed 23 of 38 passes for 409 yards and two touchdowns and has not been intercepted.

"We still have a lot to prove," tackle Keith Dorney said. "We don't just want to be good, we want to be real good. I know we're young and a lot of people had questions about us, especially about the offensive line, but we really expected to be this good. Honest. We knew it from the first day of practice."

"I'd still like to see how we are when we're behind," Puerto cautioned. "If we can come back, then, I know we are a good team."

"When you think of Penn State, you usually think of defense," Fusina said. "We're out to change that. It's time we had a little offense."

The offensive line was perhaps the biggest unknown the Lions had. The 6-foot-5 1/2, 262-pound Dorney is the only returning starter from last year's interior line and he was moved from center to tackle.

In another key switch, Paterno moved sophomore Matt Suhey from tailback to fullback and teamed him with Steve Geise.

The receivers are led by split end Scott Firtzkee, flanker Jimmy Cefalo and tight end Mickey Shuler, one of the best in the east.

Three of Penn State's defensive line men are former linebackers. Randy Sidler is the middle guard and Matt Millen and Bruce Clark are the tackles. They provide quickness and have great strength.

The strength of the 5-2 for the Lions is that it matches up each defensive lineman with an offensive lineman, so there are fewer seams in the defense.

It's a better pass coverage defense and it makes Penn State a better all-around defensive team.

It is supposedly weaker on containing quarterback rollouts and options, but the Lions apparently have enough talented people to make the necessary adjustments.

That was illustrated when they shut down Houston's Danny Davis, perhaps the best running quarterback in the country until he separated his shoulder late in the game Saturday.