This is center stage and Tim O'Hare loves it. He is a quarterback at the University of Maryland. Today his team, ranked fifth in the country, plays Penn State, ranked second. A national championship is available to the winner. The game will be televised across America. O'Hare is ready.

"The big factor will be the way I play," he said. "I have to play my best game. I do like the pressure of this, the big crowds, the roar of the crowd. It really excites me to complete a pass and hear the noise. This game with Penn State - you can't get any more center stage than this."

Whatever happens today, the Tim O'Hare story is nice. He's been at Maryland through three presidents: first a recruit under Nixon, then a lowly scrub under Ford, now a star in Carter's time. Four years a nobody, O'Hare has been good enough in his fifth year to help Maryland win its first eight games. Now comes the most formidable test and O'Hare loves it.

He loves being on the field with Chuck Fusina, the Penn State quarterback who may win the Heisman Trophy. O'Hare loves it because he intends to show that Fusina is not the only quarterback in this game.

"I read in The Washington Post that 'the teams are evenly matched except at quarterback, where Penn State has a decided advantage,'" O'Hare said with a smile. "That doesn't upset me, but . . ."

But . . .

"I'm anxious to play against a Heisman Trophy candidate to see how I match up," O'Hare said. Another smile. "I set some personal goals for this season and I have to say the Heisman Trophy was not one of them. But it would be nice to have a great game."

What would a "great game" be?

"My personal goals - well, I haven't passed for over 200 yards and more than three touchdowns in a game. I haven't had that one game yet where I put it all together. And I'm perfectly capable of it if we throw a little more than we have been."

Of late, the Maryland offense has been mediocre. Although averaging 30 points a game in the last three victories, Maryland has given Penn State's mighty defense little to worry about. Steve Atkins, the Maryland running star, has shown signs of wearing out from his heavy-duty work. And O'Hare, in a 39-0 rout of Wake Forest, was so off-form that he was replaced early in the second half.

"We've looked sluggish the last couple games," O'Hare said. "Part of that is from looking ahead to Penn State.But now we're ready to play our best game of the season. Realistically, I'm going to have to come up with the big pass plays if we're going to win."

Whatever happens, it has been a wonderful year for O'Hare. And anyone who cares about the corny stuff of perseverance and dedication must hope the quarterback does well today. Five years and three presidents is a long time to wait for a spot at center stage. And if you like O'Hare, you worry about these things he is saying. It is creating too heavy a burden?

He talks about outplaying a Heisman Trophy candidate. He wants a great day passing, the very best day of his life. Until this fall, he thought only of being a professional actor - he is a drama major. But now, with a TV game coming up, perhaps with bowl games and all-star games after that, perhaps with a national championship, O'Hare is dreaming large dreams.

"I'd tour with a stock company for a while before I'm ready to go to New York," said O'Hare, the drama student. "There'd be a few lean years but [smiling] I'm used to waiting. I'll work. 'He who hustles while he waits . . .' Thomas Edison said that Kinda catchy, isn't it?"

Then O'Hare, the star quarterback, spoke up.

"That's not saying I wouldn't jump at a chance to play professional football. That's why this Penn State game is important to me. It'll give people a chance to see how I compare to a Chuck Fusina. I used to be awed by him. I'm not any more."

In his first four years at Maryland, O'Hare threw seven passes, two in 1976 and five last year. This season he is 72 for 128, a .563 percentage, good for 992 yards. Whatever pressure he faces today - be it from large dreams or Penn State's defenders - surely is no heavier than the burden of doubt he carried in fall practice.

Ask yourself this: Here is a quarterback recruited in Nixon's time who, with Ford in the White House, never plays; then, in the year of Camp David, does this quarterback go undefeated and go on national television with a real chance to outshine a Heisman Trophy candidate?

If O'Hare is dreaming big, it isn't the first time.