It was a dubious beginning for Maryland quarterback Boomer Esiason. On his first collegiate play, last September against West Virginia, Esiason was sacked for a 15-yard loss.

"I got up and thought, 'Oh, my God. Is this what it's going to be like? What a great way to start a college career.' "

Esiason improved rapidly enough last year as a redshirt sophomore to complete 50 percent of his passes, throw as many touchdown passes as interceptions, and set a school record for number of passes completed.

He has improved enough this fall to wipe out the memory of a poor spring practice, in which he wasn't sure what Bobby Ross and the new coaching staff expected of him.

He has improved enough that his teammates no longer think of him as a youngster, but as a player who sets the tone for Maryland's offensive performance.

"Boomer's sure of himself now," Dave Pacella, the team's best offensive lineman, said. "When he steps in the huddle now, he tells you what to do."

Esiason said he is ready. "Even if the game plan calls for 40 or more passes, I'm ready.

"In the spring, I wasn't sure what was going on out there. The coaches (Ross and play-caller Joe Krivak) sat me down at the end and said, 'This is what we expect of you. This is what you're going to have to handle. And this is what you have to do to get better.'

"I wasn't reading defenses properly and I wasn't getting rid of the ball quick enough or getting back in the pocket correctly."

Those flaws seem to have been cured. In the last full scrimmage, Esiason completed 13 of 16 passes for 222 yards. In the two scrimmages this fall, he threw all 25 passes on target.

Saturday, Esiason will find out if he has improved enough to help the Terrapins beat Penn State for the first time since 1961. "That's an omen," Esiason said, "because it's the year I was born."

On the College Park campus, there is a rare, bubbly concern for the football team, an excitement that Esiason is aware of.

"Last night," he said, "I went to People's Drugs for some shampoo, and the guy behind the counter, who's a student, asked me, 'You gonna win?' I was shocked he even knew who I was. People around here usually don't care.

"I'd like to have a good game. But I'm not going to put pressure on myself," Esiason said.

Personal pressure isn't the only stress Esiason and the Terrapins will confront Saturday, as they play before the largest crowd ever to see a Maryland game (83,000) at Beaver Stadium, plus a local television audience. The Terrapins will be facing a team they have beaten only once in 26 tries.

"I've never played against a Penn State team," Esiason said, "so I don't feel a part of that record. People make this out to be a big rivalry. But 1-25 ain't no rivalry. If it was 13-13, that would be a rivalry. But not 1-25.

"If this is pressure, it'll be good pressure."