Maryland and West Virginia have been playing football games against each other for 65 years, but rarely has the rivalry generated the type of excitement that is being felt now.

Tonight, the Turner Broadcasting System and more than 50,000 fans will fill Byrd Stadium for the 8 o'clock start of the first night game in the stadium's 33-year history.

As many as 12,000 Mountaineer fans are expected to make the trip for the game, which has been sold out since early in the week. The only reason tonight's attendance won't set a record is that Byrd now has fewer seats than in 1975, when 58,973 came to watch Penn State. Still, school officials said yesterday they are expecting up to 52,000.

The campus in College Park was transformed into a community pep rally even before classes had ended yesterday afternoon, and students rode around Byrd Stadium screaming, "Beat West Virginia." Such a scene might not be a big deal in Athens, Ga., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., but it's almost unheard-of in College Park.

Hundreds showed up Thursday night to see the testing of the lights atop the five 150-foot-high towers. Russell Davis, a Terrapin wide receiver, came to watch. "My heart started pumping like mad when they turned the lights on," he said yesterday.

Coach Bobby Ross, who is seldom caught up in the emotion preceding a game, said, "Around campus there seems to be the same degree of anticipation as there was last year when Clemson came here. This game has everything you would want--a good rivalry between neighboring states, many good players . . . "

Especially good quarterbacks, probably the game's biggest draw. There are few differences between Boomer Esiason of Maryland and Jeff Hostetler of West Virginia.

Last year, when Maryland missed a two-point conversion late in the game and lost, 19-18, in Morgantown, Hostetler threw for 285 yards and Esiason 217. Their numbers tonight are expected to be higher.

Maryland found out last week, in a season-opening victory over Vanderbilt, that its defense can hold up against a passing offense. "Tonight," said guard Tyrone Furman, "we'll find out how we do against balance. They've got four good receivers (called "the Fantastic Four") and good running backs (Tom Gray and Ron Wolfley)."

The Maryland offense will find out if it can avoid the mistakes it made last week. "I think we got all the kinks out," said Esiason. "We had two very good days of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. We played well enough to win last week, but we certainly didn't play up to our capabilities, not with the penalties and mistakes."

West Virginia, ranked 20th, will find out how good it is after a 55-3 victory over Ohio University and a 48-7 win over Pacific. Hostetler has yet to play more than five minutes in the second half.

"We haven't played a good football team yet, so we don't know how good we are," said the ever-candid West Virginia coach, Don Nehlen. "Everybody says we're good, but I don't know that yet. We haven't played anybody."

Maryland, ranked 17th, is slightly favored, and there are reasons to think the Terrapins are a slightly better team. Last year, West Virginia won at home by a single point, even though the Terrapins played without running backs Willie Joyner and Dave D'Addio, who were injured.

The Mountaineer offense, however, should be better because Hostetler is completely healthy, which means he again can run. "With the ability to run," Hostetler said, "the linebacker may not take as big a drop as they would if they know the quarterback may take off." The Maryland defensive line, as Furman said, has to not only pressure Hostetler, but keep him in the pocket.

But overall, the teams--like the quarterbacks--are very similar. "We're both past the point," said Hostetler, "where everybody shrugs us off, but still on the verge of getting exactly where we want."