(Most college football games involving evenly matched teams are decided in the fourth quarter. Today, when Maryland and Penn State face off at 1:30 p.m. in Byrd Stadium, the first quarter may well determine the home team's chances.

The Terrapins have not beaten Penn State since 1961 and their record against the Lions is 1-23. Terp Coach Jerry Claiborne is 0-6 against Penn State and last year endured a 27-3 rout.

"I think all that gives us an advantage," said Penn State quarterback Dayle Tate. "If we get off to a good start, they have to be wondering if they can beat us."

For precisely that reason, Maryland must start quickly. Believing they can beat the Lions is an essential ingredient if the Terrapins are to end the long dry spell.

Navy will have a different problem with Air Force at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium at 2 p.m. The Mids (3-0) are coming off a 13-12 win over Illinois while Air Force is 0-4 and has lost seven straight games dating back to last season.

A year ago when these teams met in Colorado Springs, Navy prevailed, 37-8. Naturally, Coach George Welsh, not wanting his players to suffer the kind of letdown Maryland had at Kentucky last week, is going out of his way to find good things to say about Air Force.

"I've seen some film on the Falcons and they look to me to be better organized, they're hustling, they're hitting and they're playing tough football," Welsh said this week. "Their quarterback, Dave Ziebart, is a quality performer."

Ziebart or no Ziebart, the Mids will have to beat themselves to avoid a fourth straight victory.

The same cannot be said of Virginia (3-1) coming off an impressive 30-12 win over Duke. The Cavaliers are at Clemson to play the defending ACC champion Tigers (2-1).

Maryland learned three weeks ago that Clemson is tough to run on and the Cavs' offense is built around backs Tommy Vigorito and Greg Taylor, both averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game.

UVA may have trouble scoring points. That will leave it up to the rapidly improving defense to contain a Clemson team still struggling to overcome the graduation of quarterback Steve Fuller. The Tigers are averaging only 11 points a game.

Virginia Tech (3-1) faces an interesting test when Wake Forst (3-1) comes to Lane Stadium. Both teams were impressive in losing last week, the Hokies giving 10th-ranked Florida State a defensive battle before succumbing, 17-13, and the Deacons making it tough for 16th-ranked North Carolina State, 17-14.

Tech's defense should be tested by Wake Quarterback Jay Venuto, who has passed for more than 200 yards in all four contests thus far in leading Wake to its best start in nine years.

Howard (2-2) will be trying to break a two game losing streak at Dover against Delaware State (1-2). Both teams are 0-1 in the MEAC and both have been beaten soundly be perenial league champion South Carolina State.

Bison quarterbacks Ronald Wilson and Bryan Thomas will be trying to get the ball to fleet wide receiver Greg Scott against the inexperienced Delaware State secondary.

Goergetown (2-0), unscored upon this season, is at St. Peter's (0-2). The Hoya defense has been keyed by sophomore safety Jim Corcoran, who leads Division III teams with four interceptions and is fifth in punt returns with a 13.8-yard average.

Catholic (1-1) has been impressive in allowing an average of only 10 yards rushing its first two outings. The Cardinals will play at Bridgewater (1-2) this afternoon. UDC (3-1) is at Frostburg State (0-3). The Firebirds have won three in a row. James Madison (1-4) has a tough game at William and Mary. Bowle State (1-3) broke into the win column a week ago and tries for two in a row at Hampton (2-3).

The big game in town, however, is the Maryland-Penn State affair, with a sellout crowd of 50,000 expected. The Nittany Lions (1-2) are struggling in very un-Joe Paterno-like fashion and the Terps, after an excellent week of practice, feel they are ready to produce an upset.

Claiborne, while working his players hard all week, has been trying to soft-pedal the game and his team's chances of winning, not wanting his players down should they lose with a crucial conference game at N.C. State next week.

"They have better personnel than we do," Claiborne said. "I just think they have more good people at the different positions than our team does."

Claiborne's major concern is his passing game.Maryland has not thrown the ball well, a fact both Clairborne and quarterback Mike Tice readily concede.

But against Penn State's tremendous defensive line, led by All- American tackles Bruce Clark and Matt Millen, and a Lion secondary decimated by academic problems and injuries, the Terps will throw more often than most Claiborne teams and probably will throw earlier than usual.

Paterno's teams have started slowly in the past. He had a 1-3 team as recently as 1976, but obviously doesn't want a repeat.

"We've been in this position before and now it's time to see what we can do," Paterno said. "The Maryland game is an important one for this team."

In addition to their defensive problems -- 69 points have been given up the last two weeks -- the Lions have yet to prove they can pass.

Tate, a red-shirt junior, had played but five downs prior to this season and, like Tice, still is feeling his way as a starter. If Tate cannot move the club, Paterno may turn to sophomore Terry Bakowsky, not as good a passer but a more effective option runner.

The Lions are solid in the backfield with fullback Matt Suhey, tailbacks Booker Moore and Clark Warner and wingback Mike Guman. But the offensive line has not yet provided the blocking Lion backs have grown accustomed to.

The bottom line on the game is a simple one -- the team that can add an effective passing attack to its ground game probably will win.

Maryland will try to get the ball to tailback Charlie Wysocki at least 20 times, but his effectiveness will depend largely on Tice's ability to open up the defense with his passes.

"We both have something to prove in this game," Tice said. "They were embarrassed last week by Nebraska, we were embarrassed last year by them."

The Penn State point of view was best summed up by Guman: "We've talked and talked about what's wrong, what our problem is. The talk doesn't matter anymore.It's time we got down to business."