Pressure is in the eye of the beholder. Quarterback Chuck Fusina realizes the magnitude of No. 2 Penn State vs No. 5 Maryland here tomorrow: national television, the race for the national championship, a 77,000-seat stadium overflowing. He also knows pressure.

At one time, the second-worst thing that could happen to one of his passes was an interception. That was during his grade school days in the steel-hard region of Western Pennslvania, when eight-man touch games were played on a concrete basketball court and if his passes were a bit long and wide the receiver might well finish his pattern with a broken leg.

"The court was on the top of a hill," he said yesterday, "and as soon as you left the concrete you went down this steep slope. You got to be pretty accurate in those games, because your receiver could also run into the basketball poles on either end of the court.

"Those games were tougher than any on a football field."

Fusina has extended his hometown region's already rich reputation for gifted quarterbacks. Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath, Babe Parilli and Terry Hanratty prepped in the area. Recent quarterbacks at Pitt, Notre Dame and Penn State came from his McKees Rocks neighborhood.

At last count, Fusina holds or shares 15 passing and total-offense records at Penn State, which has a tradition of fine quarertbacks but only one pro with more than modest success, Milt Plum.

Fusina has gained the attention of pro scouts with the same sort of late burst he showed in high school that attracted scores of college recruiters. And another glittering performance against Maryland would make him a strong possibility for the Heisman Trophy.

Most pro teams rate him at least among the top five senior quarterbacks, even though Penn State's offense is as conservative as the opposition allows. If the Lions can run 30 times and pass 10 during games, that sits well with Fusina.

Two weeks ago, Syracuse dedicated itself to stopping Penn State runners - and Fusina threw four touchdown passes and two long completions.

"We don't go into a game with any set goals," he said. "We don't say, 'Well, we have to run today or we have to throw to win.' We don't totally rely on one part of the offense. We take what the defense gives us that game.

"And I imagine Maryland will make as throw."

For the next three games, or until ABC television allows the regular season to end here against Pitt, Fusina buries all thoughts of the Heisman and the number of numbers to the left of the comma in his pro contract.

"I've worked three years for this year," he said. "If I let my mind drift now I'd be letting down myself and the more than 100 people involved with the team."

Not that his mind fails to drift now and then. He has a more-than-casual interest in magic - to the point where ABC might coax him into a card trick or some such sleight of hand before he shows Maryland what Penn State has up its offensive sleeve.

Early in his senior year at Sto-Rox High, Fusina's chances of even playing another down, let alone college and pro success, seemed bleak. He stepped into a hole and suffered what appeared to be a career-ending back injury.

"But it turned out I missed only two or three games," he said. "Somehow, it just got better in a hurry - almost overnight. I was really uptight the first game back. But the opposition coach said he'd bench anyone that hit me on the back, and everything turned out fine."

That was another acramble from pressure. There is more. In addition to his obvious skills, the Dallas Cowboy's Gil Brandt is more impressed with Fusina's performances under "real adverse conditions."

"I imagine it kind of hurts your performance," Brandt added, "When a guy says he's going to shoot you."

Two weeks or so before the Pitt game his sophomore year, Fusina was casually poking through his fan mail when up popped a death threat. The threat included himself, his mother and Coach Joe Paterno.

"That opened my eyes to reality," he said. "You think college football is important, but you realize how unimportant it is compared to many other things. It changed my attitude toward a lot of things."

Fusina was surprised - and saddened - when some fans were angry more about how that deranged writer affected his performance - he threw three interceptions and Pitt won - than why anyone could write such a letter.

There were other letters.

"Of course, there's no way you don't think about it," Fusina said. "Once last year, there was a noise in any room late at night - and my roommate and I turned in our beds and wondered: 'Hey, what's going on?'

"It turned out to be nothing."

One apprehension Paterno volunteers is that Penn State's fans may one day be irritated with an 8.3 or 9.2 record and angry about anything just over 500.

Like his quarterback, Paterno questions "how some people set priorities." The coach's were tested Wednesday. He had a television show to do on the night of his youngest son's 6th birthday. The solution? Have part of the party at the television studio.