The number has been marinating in the nation's sporting mind for nearly a week: 883. How do we grasp it, put it in proper perspective? Nebraska simply wants it to plant some defensive doubt in Penn State here Saturday.

Never in all the years the NCAA has kept such records has any team gained so much yardage in one game as the Cornhuskers did last Saturday--without really trying. The only players Tom Osborne didn't use against New Mexico State he couldn't use; they were toting tubas and flutes.

Consider this: No team in the National Football League mustered as much yardage in two games as Nebraska did in its last one. With 849, the Philadelphia Eagles were closest; had the strike not interrupted their plodding, it might have taken the Chicago Bears more than one month to equal what the Cornhuskers did in one afternoon.

Some jocks don't walk 883 yards to class in a week. The State and Nebraska players do, those schools being among the ones where athletics and academics mix comfortably. Both coaches, Osborne and the Lions' Joe Paterno, are imaginative, resourceful, driven men whose teams are so staggeringly good on offense that the Beaver Stadium scoreboard might resemble some video game gone bonkers.

Some football fanatics believe this Nebraska team is special, close to unique offensively, that it gets from goal line to goal line as quickly and often as anyone in memory; others insist the Huskers' third game is their first real one, that they will revert to form under Osborne and play just well enough against players as gifted to lose by about a field goal.

State has a spectacular quick-strike capacity; quarterback Todd Blackledge has thrown four touchdown passes in each of his first three games. The Lions' defense seems more gracious than usual, and the offense so far has lacked the sort of time-consuming ground game so useful against such as the Cornhuskers.

Recent history suggests Nebraska has the away-field advantage.

How's that?

Well, the Cornhuskers won here two years ago, 21-7, and State won last season in Lincoln, 30-24. That was the game a Lion from Silver Spring, Md., Mark Robinson, quite literally hit the big time; what he has done since has flabbergasted friend and foe.

"Our second game of the season; my first start (as a sophomore safety)," he recalled over the phone earlier this week, "I was a little scared, thinking: 'Can I do it?' There was an early sweep right by (Roger) Craig that I supported hard on and stopped him from a first down.

"Pretty big day; had 12 tackles in all to lead the team. That brought me in right."

Paterno, who is prejudiced, calls Robinson the best college safety in the country, a swifter Jack Tatum.

Maryland's Bobby Ross calls Robinson "the best free safety I've ever seen."

He is that rare player who can generate offense on defense. His specialty is long-distance moving in a hurry. He returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown against Rutgers last week; he returned an interception 91 yards for a touchdown last season against Pitt.

"Made a move on one guy," he said of that Pitt run, "you know: Give a leg, take a leg. Except he got my shoe when I pulled the leg back, and I went maybe 70 yards with no shoe. I felt myself slipping, slowing to keep my balance and thinking about being caught by some lineman. People saying: 'Look how slow you are.' "

Cornerback skills and linebacker nastiness are Robinson traits, although Maryland two weeks ago found a way to beat him long.

"Hero one week, maybe goat the next," he says of his position. "No place to get an ego."

Of Nebraska's cross-country meet against New Mexico, Robinson volunteered: "It was almost a dummy scrimmage; New Mexico kinda wanted the game over with. We're sure not gonna make it that easy."

Nebraska is more like Alabama than Pitt, he said.

"Pitt is more a finesse team," he said. "Nebraska comes right at you; no disguises; a rather large offensive line; very brutal; run-run-run and then a sneak pass."

Perhaps because it cannot do much else, even with Curt Warner, State has been pass-crazy this season. And to the delight of customers who a few years ago were fussing about a pony-express offense in the missile age. State sends out sonic booms now and then, has passed for nearly 300 more yards than it has run.

In three games, anti-missile missile Robinson has intercepted a pass for 22 yards, returned two punts, one for a touchdown and sacked a quarterback for a six-yard loss. With 15, he is tied for the team lead in solo tackles; with 18, he is second in total tackles.

Robinson grew up in Northeast Washington, but moved to Silver Spring in his fifth-grade year. His decision to attend Penn State instead of North Carolina or Ohio State was both clinical and emotional. State was far enough from home; the others too far.

"A big decision," he said. "Something that can decide what you'll be doing for the rest of your life."

Still, his decision was not as critical as most. Barring injury, Robinson was destined to excel at whatever school he chose. For him, any decision would have been wise.