In the Maryland locker room at College Park there is a message scrawled in block letters across a big chalkboard. It reads: SEPT. 11 -- THE DAY OF RESPECT.

It's been 21 years since Maryland gained any respect from playing Penn State. Since 1961, when Maryland won, 21-17, the Nittany Lions have beaten Maryland 18 straight times. The Lions have won 25 of 26 games since the series began in 1917.

And with Penn State currently ranked No. 7 in the nation, facing a restructured Terrapin team that knows little about itself, Saturday's 1:30 meeting (WDCA-TV-20) before 84,000 here in Beaver Stadium offers no logical reason for a break in tradition.

Penn State has running back Curt Warner, a probable all-America. The Lions have offensive lineman Pete Speros from St. John's High School, one of the best tackles in the nation. They have defensive back Mark Robinson from Kennedy High in Silver Spring, a player Coach Joe Paterno calls flatly "the best safety in the nation."

What Bobby Ross has, going into his first game as head coach at Maryland, is a lot of uncertainty.

"We're not going to hold them in awe," Ross said this week. "But there's a lot we can't know about ourselves going into this game. I don't know how we will react to playing in front of the biggest crowd ever to see a Maryland football game. You know how good Penn State is."

Uncertainties and all, the Terrapins come looking for respect.

This will not be, Ross promises, conservative, predictable Maryland football of the past. Quarterback Boomer Esiason, who's had a very good fall practice, has enough freedom with play-calling to keep the Lions off balance.

"It's probably good," said Esiason, "that not even we know what we're going to do."

Ross wants Maryland to avoid costly mistakes early on, the kind that can make Ross' debut a futile come-from-behind game before the end of the first quarter.

He is aware of his team's deficiencies and says he has "a lot of apprehensions" about some of the matchups the Terrapins will encounter.

Ross also has reason to worry because he isn't sure which Penn State offense will show up Saturday; the fairly conservative, ball-control, give-it-to-Warner version the Lions used so convincingly last year, or the wide-open version that allowed quarterback Todd Blackledge to throw four touchdowns last week in an easy victory over Temple.

"Penn State is not doing things the way people expected them to. They are a little more inclined to throw the ball (this year) and that's a little uncharacteristic for them," Ross said. "They're running more splitback offense (Warner and Jon Williams), which compounds our defensive problems. We have some mismatches, and have to protect ourselves. But I'd rather not elaborate on where those mismatches are."

However, Penn State is not invincible. The offensive line did not perform that well last week, which could be the reason Paterno has decided on a more varied offensive attack to hide weaknesses. If Penn State couldn't run against Temple--Warner gained only 49 yards--it will certainly have problems against the Terrapins, fourth in the nation against the run last year.

"Our front four can play with anybody," Esiason said. The defensive linemen have set a goal of recording 20 more sacks than last year's total of 47.

Offensively, Maryland will have to be as unpredictable as Ross' new offense can dare. "We won't let an interception or a dropped pass stop us," Ross said. "As much as I'd like to avoid turnovers, we will not sit back in order to avoid them."