Maryland turned what should have been a rout into a tense opening game yesterday and needed a last-minute touchdown from tailback Charlie Wysocki to escape with a 24-20 win over Villanova in front of 31,684 in Byrd Stadium.

Though Wysocki's third touchdown of the afternoon put the often-sloppy Terrapins in front for good. Mike Tice's 25-yard pass to freshman Mike Lewis on a third-and-seven play from the Villanova 29 kept the Terps alive and set up the touchdowns.

And, in un-Jerry Claiborn-like fashion, it was Lewis' decision to break the pattern that got him open. "I was supposed to run a streak -- a fly pattern into the corner of the end zone -- but I saw the corner backing off on me," Lewis said of his first reception as a collegian. "Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the safety had left the middle, so I cut in there and ran a post."

Tice, given all day to throw by his offensive line, hit Lewis on the numbers. Two plays later Wysocki scored and Maryland -- a 19-point favorite -- had escaped in spite of three fumbles, an interception and 64 yards in penalties.

"We won because we had better personnel than they did," Coach Claiborne said. "If they had better personnel than we did they would have beat us and they would have beaten us good."

The victory was costly for the Terrapins because defensive guard Marlin Van Horn, perhaps the team's best defensive lineman, hurt his left knee early in the second period. The injury was initially diagnosed as ligament damage, and team physician Stanford Lavine said he will decide Monday if an operation is necessary, meaning Van Horn would miss the season and be eligible for a fifth year in 1980.

If Van Hern does not need an operation, he will be out four to six weeks.

The Terps did not lose because they dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage. Sophomore Wysocki, in his first start at tailback, carried 32 times for 161 yards and all three Maryland scores. His day was marred only by a first-quarter fumble.

The second quarter made this a close game. Within 4 minutes 32 seconds the Terps lost two fumbles, saw Tice throw an interception and were penalized twice.

Villanova took advantage of the first fumble -- by Jan Carinci after catching a quick out pass from Tice -- to score on a 17-yard pass from quarterback Pat O'Brien to Willie Sydner with 9:09 left in the half.

That offset Wysocki's first-quarter touchdown and tied the game, 7-7.

On Maryland's next possession, Tice misread Villanova's defense and threw into heavy linebacker coverage trying to hit Tom Burgess. Anthony Griggs intercepted on the 36 and returned the ball 31 yards to the Maryland five. Two plays later, tailback Spencer Prescott went in from the one and, to the surprise of all, it was 14-7, Villanova.

"The first quarter we just kind of blew them out," said Tice, who finished nine for 15 for 137 yards in his first start. "I think we got a bit cocky, too lax. We thought we could just run them over and we lost some concentration."

The most obvious victim of the lapse was the usually sure-handed Carinci. On the kickoff after the Wildcats' second touchdown, Carinci, playing up on the return team, fielded the short kick, broke two tackles and fumbled on the 31. Tom Fitzpatrick recovered for Villanova.

This time, the Maryland defense stiffened, but Chuck Bushbeck came in to kick a 45-yard field goal and Maryland was in a 17-7 hole with 2:54 left in the half.

"I thought our kids did a great job taking advantage of the breaks," Villanova Coach Dick Bedesem said. "You have to make breaks by taking advantage of them and we did.

"I'll tell you one thing though. I'm getting tired of coming down here playing well and losing. I'd rather come down, play badly and win."

Maryland is 7-0 against Villanova since Claiborne took over. But even after Dale Castro kicked a 28-yard field goal with one second left in the half to make it 17-10, the Terps looked shaky.

"The coaches just told us at half-time that we had to get our concentration going," defensive halfback John Baldante said. "They didn't scream or anything because that doesn't do any good. But they made it clear we had to get our heads up."

Both teams played conservatively the third quarter -- Maryland did not pass -- but as the sun began fading on the beautiful, breezy afternoon, Maryland's offensive line began to take over.

Starting on their own 40 with 4:51 left in the third quarter, the Terps ran at the Wildcats 10 straight times. On Wysocki's seventh carry of the drive he bolted into the end zone from five yards out and with 23 seconds left in the quarter the game was tied, 17-17.

"The holes were wide open all day," Wysocki said. "I was a little nervous in the beginning but as the game went on I felt good. I expected to carry the ball a lot, but not this much."

At that point Villanova mounted its first -- and only -- sustained drive, controlling on the ground for 8:43 and 14 plays before bogging down on the Maryland 17. Bushbeck'e second field goal made it 20-17 for the visitors with 5:39 left.

"I just went into the huddle after they tied it up and said, 'Look we're not stupid; we know this is a crucial drive,'" quarterback O'Brien said. "We knew we had to keep the ball awhile and we did."

But O'Brien's offense, which finished with a total 167 yards -- six yards more than Wysocki -- could not control the ball when it got back after Maryland stalled. So the Terps had one final chance, starting on the Villanova 48, after Sammy Johnson returned the punt 23 yards.

"When it got down to the tough stuff," Tice said, "the offensive line was great. I had all day to throw."

Tice immediately hit tight end Eric Sievers on the 32 for a first down. But then Wysocki picked up two on the ground and Tice, finding no one open on a rollout, was tackled for a yard gain. It was third and seven and Maryland called time with 1:27 left.

"The play was either for Sievers or Lewis," Claiborne said. "Lewis was supposed to run a streak but when he saw the safety leave the middle, he cut there. It was a great play for a freshman to make."