"I thought about Maryland when I was in high school. But they had that stigma, you know. They've just never been able to win the big games." -- Penn State quarterback Dayle Tate

"That's ridiculous. If we hadn't won a lot of big games, we wouldn't be where we are. How can you have an undefeated season without winning big games?"

Jerry Claiborne was bristling. The question of his Maryland football team's ability to win so-called "big" games clearly disturbs him.

"I can see where people might say that," said quarterback Mike Tice. "Look at last year. Penn State, big game. Clemson, big game. Texas, big game. We lost all three.

"It's upsetting. Maybe this is going to sound funny, but I really think the key in a big game is the quarterback. I've been looking at films of past Penn State games all week long. I'm not trying to put down anyone who has been here in the past, but in all those games the quarterback just hasn't played well. Last year, too. Timmy (O'Hare) and I played poorly.

"To win a big game, the quarterback has to make the big plays. Maryland's quarterbacks haven't been able to do that in the past. I've got to do it on Saturday."

Tice's role will be especially crucial Saturday. Penn State's weakness is the defensive secondary, where academic problems and injuries have taken a heavy toll. The Lions' strength is up front with All-America tackles Bruce Clark and Matt Millen.

Much as Claiborne would like to keep the ball on the ground, the Terrapins cannot win without an effective passing game. And, by his own admission, Tice has yet to put together an outstanding performance in any of the first four games.

"It seems like we've had a different problem each week," he said. "Sometimes I haven't gotten the ball there, other times the blocking hasn't been there; a few times balls have been dropped.

"I'm trying to get better every week. The first couple of weeks, I was kind of gun shy, worrying about my shoulder (operated on last spring) because I didn't know how I would take a hit.

"Now, I feel like I'm almost back to where I was before I got hurt. My stats weren't very good last week (10 for 29) but I thought I did some little things better, like throwing the ball away instead of taking a sack."

Claiborne has put heavy emphasis on the passing attack in drills this week, putting in some new patterns and some plays designed to let Tice get rid of the ball quicker against the Penn State rush or the blitz. One of Maryland's problems the first four games has been that Tice rarely has had time to stand in the pocket and use his 6-foot-7 height to pick out receivers.

"If you're going to run patterns that take a long time to develop, you either need superfast receivers or super pass blocking," Tice said. "We haven't had either. It isn't the line's fault, it's just that we put so much emphasis on the running game they don't work on pass-blocking that much, so sometimes they may be rusty when we have to start passing.

"I think this week you'll see them do a much better job of pass-blocking. It really isn't fair to them, you know. I get sacked and they get yelled at in meetings. I don't get sacked because they do their job and my name gets in the paper, not theirs."

Claiborne has worked the offensive line very hard all week, especially on pass-blocking. Practices Tuesday and Wednesday were extremely intense and, according to several players, Claiborne was even caught smiling after the workout Wednesday.

"I think we've practiced well this week," said Claiborne, who had not been pleased with drills last week. "I wouldn't say we've put any particular emphasis on the pass this week. We've worked hard on our passing the last three weeks because we don't feel like our passing game has been good. We didn't play well last week but we could have won if our passing game had been effective.

"Mike just hasn't had the confidence-building game he needs yet. If he can get that one good game, I think it will do a lot for him."

Tice hopes that game will be Saturday, because Penn State is a special opponent. "I remember when Coach (assistant Tom) Groom recruited me, he told me 'we're bringing you here to beat Penn State.' I liked that.That's why losing the way we did last year (27-3) really upset me.

"I really wanted to do well when I went in for Timmy. But we were down 10 points and there were 78,000 people in that stadium who knew I was going to pass.

"I have to make the plays Saturday. I have to execute. If the quarterback doesn't execute, you get your butts beat."

Tice's two biggest critics this season have been Tice and Claiborne. The coach has been particularly concerned about Tice's reading of the defenses and picking out of the open receiver.

"In the beginning, I was so worried about my arm that I really wasn't concentrating on reading," Tice said. "Last week, my arm finally felt close to 100 percent and I started working on my 'reads.' I feel better about it now.

And, as the team's leading receiver, Jan Carinci, points out, Tice's problems have not been all self-created. "Mike's stats shouldn't have been that bad against Kentucky," Carinci said. "We dropped some passes on him. The 10-for-29 was deceiving."

Deceiving or not, Tice knows he must do better against Penn State.

"I know their line is going to come and sometimes they'll get through," he said. "They're too good not to. But the mark of a good quarterback is hanging in and taking your licks. That's what I have to do Saturday."

If Tice does that, Maryland may take a step toward shedding that "can't-win-the-big-ones" stigma that so irks Claiborne and many of the players.

"I don't know why they'd say that," safety Ralph Lary said. "Maybe they want to antagonize us."

Certainly, it antagonizes Claiborne. His program is 0-6 against Penn State, and he wants desperately to make it 1-6 Saturday. He will need a big game from Mike Tice.

Three days of practice on the Astro Turf have taken their toll. Fullback Rick Fasano, already questionable with a broken ring finger, pulled a groin muscle Wednesday and is doubtful. One of his backups, Lyle Peck, bruised a knee and is out, leaving Jeff Rodenberger as the only healthy varsity fullback . . . The offensive line has numerous aches and pains: guard Paul Glamp and tight end Tom Burgess have ankle problems, Scott Fanz a sore knee, Kervin Wyatt back pains. All will play Saturday . . . Tailback Charlie Wysocki has been wearing a bandage all week to protect a bruised thigh . . . Wide receiver Larry Gregory, who made a big catch Saturday, also has a sore ankle . . . Cornerback Steve Trimble, out two weeks with a separated shoulder, will be available, but Sam Medile will start.