By the time Steve Atkins pranced into the Duke end zone midway through the third quarter yesterday, even Jerry Claiborne could take his blinkers off and gaze toward central Pennsylvania. What is the worth of Maryland vs. Penn State? At least $1 million - for openers.

It is nearly impossible to overrate this collision, both in practical - or dollar - terms as well as the prestige both schools have covered for so long. Maryland has waited a generation for a national championship, State even longer - and that is the sort of possibility the winner can realistically consider.

"We can't ask for a better situation," said quarterback Tim O'Hare. "It's no secret that whoever wins probably gets the Orange Bowl and a shot at Oklahoma. Or maybe Nebraska. We've got as good a chance as anybody (for the national championship). If we win every game, we should win it."

As Terrapins sometimes do, this Maryland team has managed to plod ahead of allegedly swifter and superior collegiate athletic animals this season. Wolverines, for instance, and Longhorns, Razorbacks and Bruins.

Maryland and other Atlantic Coast Conference teams have done well enough in enough bowls lately to justify a No. 5 rating nationally. And looking past two Twinkies is partly why the Terrapins have not been especially sharp of late.

Yes, it is possible to win by a combined 66-0 two weeks in a row and not be satisfied. Which is one reason for State being favored here by a touchdown.

Second-ranked State hardly is invincible. But barring some freakish twist or horrid weather Maryland cannot win unless it executes a phase of its offense almost nonexistent recently - passing.

O'Hare is the most obvious Terrapin on the spot this week, and by his own admission he has improved from bad to tepid in two weeks. But Larry Stewart and his offensive-line pals are even more important.

Tailback Atkins can run only so far. And if the blockers do not perform exceedingly well, such lions as Matt Millen and Bruce Clark will be in the Maryland pass pocket before O'Hare gets there. O'Hare postgame analysis yesterday hardly rodes well.

"They (the Duke defensive linemen) seemed to be reading our stances," he said. "They seemed to know when we were going to throw. A couple of times they were calling 'pass' before the play."

Telegraphing offensive punches is not a fatal sin against battered and undermanned Duke. Penn State is the Earnie Shavers of football.

"We have to stay after 'em, just like everyone else," said Stewart. "Step in their face and move our feet. They (Millen and Clark) are the two best defensive tackles in the country, bar none."

Lucky Stewart gets to keep company with each of them Saturday at Penn State, because Maryland flip-flops its blockers depending on the play.

"The coaches did a good job trying to keep our minds off State the last few weeks," Stewart said. "Personally, I know a lot of us looked ahead anyway. Penn State is Penn State. And we've never beaten those guys."

In fact, Maryland has won one of 23 games with State. But Stewart can be excused for the error. He was 5 when Dick Shiner and Gary Collins scored that historic victory, in 1961.

The teams match up reasonably well almost everywhere except quarterback. Both field-goal kickers are accurate and have exceptional range. The defenses are exceptional. State has not seen the likes of Maryland's special teams.

But the Lions' Chuck Fusina is a quarterback with nice touch both long and short. Syracuse bunched its defense to stop the Lion runners, so Fusina threw four passes for touchdowns and two others for long gains.

In truth, Maryland seemed to have a better chance a year ago at State. But two passers the coaches rated better than O'Hare could not pass against State, which won by 18 points after a close first half.

The less-heralded O'Hare is 8-0 though, and State once won 22 straight games with a quarterback whose passes wobbled more. Of course, such as Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris, Jack Ham, Mike Reid and some other future All-pros were on hand at the time.

Whether O'Hare has anything approaching Chuck Burkhart's help will be known in six days. There is no argument when he says, "We've played our best against the good teams."