He caught the pass that interrupted a wonderful punting contest and lifted Penn State past Maryland for the zillionth time. Then Jimmy Cefalo put the future of both teams in marvelous perspective:

"We can be as good as our attitude makes us."

The Lions fully intend to leave their cleat marks deeply imprinted on assorted Wildcats, Mountaineers, Owls and Panthers that remain in their path - and the 24-point second half today gave credence to their place among the country's five best teams.

And Maryland? In truth, no one knows, although everyone was putting on a positive public face while painfully looking backward to what coach Jerry Claiborne called "a game of almost." As he knows so well, almosts get you the Fiesta Bowl.

This game Maryland wanted - and needed - to win so badly had nearly everyone feeling that one of what the coaching manual calls "big plays" would allow one team to eventually dominate the other.

The Terrapins had one fine chance for a telling blow, in the final seconds of the first half when George Scott ran smack into linebacker Mike Conforto less than a yard from a touchdown. Scott still was a foot or so short of a touchdown when he hit the ground - and the Terrapins settled instead for a tying field goal.

Then came what may well prove to be the most important play of the season for both teams. Just under nine minutes remained in the third quarter of a 3-3 game, second and seven for State on its 42-yard line and Chuck Fusina dropped back for something called "a middle play."

Maryland's right defensive end, Chip Garber, broke quickly toward the Lion quarterback, with no one seemingly between him and a wide-open sack - and possibly a fumble because Fusina could not see see him.

"I thought so," Garber said later. "I thought I had him, but I never got to him." Suddenly, State's Keith Dorney slipped from the right side of the offensive line and smacked Garber yards from the quarterback.

Fusina, meanwhile, was reading the Maryland defense - and proved far beyond the Sesame Street level. If the Terrapins showed a zone, he would throw to wide receiver Scott Fitzkee, who earlier had made a tumbling catch the crowd of 62,079 will not see topped in years.

Maryland was man for man, though, so Fusina looked into the middle of the field, where Cefalo was supposed to be beating the free safety, Jon Claiborne. A similar play earlier had been stymied by Claiborne leaping at the last instant and batting the ball to the wet turf.

Again, Cefalo drifted past Claiborne. This time Claiborne leaped for the ball - and dropped quickly to the ground as his left hamstring popped.As they diagram the play in the books. Fusina threw a pass that hit Cefalo in the chest as the Maryland 15. There was no Terrapin within acres of him as he scampered across the goal line.

"I just got up and it was gone," said Claiborne. "Please excuse me, I've got to ice this thing."

There were other "almosts." But that one enable them to be Marlyand's instead of State's. With neither team mustering much beyond an occasional nice pass before the Cefalo catch, State was able to score on its next two possessions - and gain a 20-3 lead.

Had Maryland been able to score a touchdown instead of a field goal just before the half the affair might well have been different, because that was one time the State defense was thrown backward with any regularity.

For the Terrapins, Steve Atkins had been ineffective. And Alvin Maddox had also. But Scott cracked the middle of the State defense six straight times from the 18 - until he ran into unmovable Conforto.

Possibly, Maryland should have tried for the touchdown on fourth down. But a hurried field goal seemed a better decision than a hurried run or pass with the clock moving under 10 seconds, because State had stopped Scott for short gains three times inside the tow.

Possibly, Claiborne might have replace Mark Manges with Larry Dick before the fourth quarter. Whether he admits it publicly or not, the coach must given serious consideration to starting Dick Saturday against North Carolina State.

"Whatever's best for the team is what I'll go along with," said Dick. "A 9-2 record is the best we can do now. We've got to win 'em all now, although a lot of people may or may not be coming out to find out whether we can.

"We've got a lot of people hurt (Claiborne, receiver Vince Kinney, cornerback Dough Harbert, a lot of holes to fill. But this is one of the times you really dig down and show some class. I'm looking forward to Monday's practice for the N.C. State game."

The pitch to which each team had worked itself was evident even before the opening kickoff, when State coach Joe Paterno leaped into his screaming and jumping players near the sideline.

"This has been an enthusiastic group and the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] been needling me," he said. "It's an awfully good squad and they have a lot of fun playing. You don't want to spoil all the fun by being a stodgy, 50-year-old man."

"They always say about Penn State, 'It's a great November team,'" said Fusina. "We knew we couldn't do that this year." Not after the 7-5 record of a year ago.

In the Maryland locker room, Manges was saying, "I'm 0-3 aginst them and that speaks for itself." Brad Carr was figuratively kicking himself for failing to pick up the receiver on State's second touchdown; and Mike Sochko was summing up matters bymumbling: "It's sickening."