Maryland football players talked before kickoff today about their school's dubious history against Penn State, about all the times Maryland teams had blown it and how -- this time -- they wouldn't cooperate.

So the Terrapins scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a maddening rush and still lost, 25-24, to 11th-ranked Penn State in Beaver Stadium when inexplicable confusion on the Maryland sideline let the final four seconds run out before Jess Atkinson could get on the field to try a 52-yard field goal with the wind at his back.

History, then, caught up to these Terrapins: Penn State beat Maryland for the 20th straight time and 27th time in 28 games because the Terrapins couldn't make a two-point conversion with 1:52 left and because somebody on the Maryland sideline called "field goal" when he shouldn't have.

Maryland quarterback Stan Gelbaugh completed a 20-yard pass to Sean Sullivan at the Penn State 35 with four seconds left. The Terrapins had used all their timeouts in stopping Penn State on the preceding possession, but the clock stopped while the officials moved the first-down chains.

Coach Bobby Ross stood on the sideline screaming, "Kill . . . Kill," which meant for Gelbaugh to take the snap and throw out of bounds to stop the clock. That would have given Atkinson the allotted 25 seconds to set up for a field goal.

But at the same time someone else -- "I still don't know who did it," Ross said -- screamed, "Field goal . . . Field goal." And some of the members of the field goal unit began running onto the field.

Gelbaugh had his hands under center, shouting, "Mayday . . . Mayday . . . Mayday," so he could throw the ball out of bounds.

But when he saw Atkinson coming onto the field Gelbaugh ran off the field. Offensive players and members of the field goal unit, not knowing whether to run "Kill" or try for the field goal right then, looked at each other and ran around in confusion.

"It was just bedlam," Ross said.

Or as Atkinson described the scene, "It looked like a Chinese fire drill. There were more people running back and forth from the sideline than I've ever seen in my life."

In that confusion, Dan Henning, the would-be holder for the field goal try, took a snap and threw out of bounds. But several Maryland players were not set, resulting in what appeared to be a five-yard illegal procedure. (The game officials were not available to comment afterward on the penalty.)

One second was left, but it expired with Atkinson, the all-Atlantic Coast Conference kicker, pacing off his steps for what would have been 57-yard try.

"I set the tee down and I was walking off my steps," Atkinson said. "It was 57 1/2 yards, and I was lining up when I see (Penn State Coach) Joe Paterno on the field.

"I said, 'What the hell is he doing out here? . . . Get off the field, you haven't won yet.' Then I see all these people in blue and white running on the field, and they say it's over."

Ross didn't question the fact that time ran out, but he was upset that the official never came over to him to explain what happened. And he was so disbelieving that his team lost, he seemed lost.

"I felt it. I felt it," he said over and over. "I just wish we had a chance at that field goal. God, we just let it get away."

Atkinson had kicked a 20-yarder to beat West Virginia two weeks ago. But he had been wanting to make a long one, like the 60-yarder Kevin Butler of Georgia made to beat Clemson.

Gelbaugh said of Atkinson, "He's that kind of guy. If we could have just set it up. He would have drilled it. Everybody on both teams knew that."

"It would be idiotic for me to sit here and guarantee I could have kicked a 57-yard field goal," Atkinson said. "But all I wanted was a chance. At this point, I'd rather kick and miss than to have what happened.

"You know the worst part?" Atkinson continued. "So much, this team went into this game wanting to erase all the little things that kept Maryland from winning against Penn State in the past. It hurts so bad to come away empty, and now be a part of all that history we were trying to avoid."

Penn State quarterback Doug Strang, held to blame by Penn State fans if not his coaches for last week's 28-3 loss to Texas, passed for two touchdowns and ran for the other before a crowd of 85,486, largest ever to see Maryland play. The touchdown passes covered 30 yards to Rocky Washington in the first quarter and 27 yards to Tony Mumford, making it 25-11 early in the fourth. On the other touchdown drive, Strang completed passes of 29 (on third and 16) and 14 yards to set up his one-yard run.

The field goal wasn't Maryland's only chance to win today.

The Terrapins (2-3) trailed, 25-11, early in the fourth quarter. But they pulled to 25-18 on a 45-yard pass from Gelbaugh to Eric Holder. And Alvin Blount's 18-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left made it 25-24 in favor of Penn State (4-1).

The Terrapins had pulled within 14-11 in the third quarter on a one-yard run by Rick Badanjek, who also ran three yards for that two-point conversion.

This time however, after Blount's touchdown, Ross elected to pass. Badanjek's two-point run had barely worked. So Ross wasn't taking another chance with that.

Gelbaugh, starting in place of injured Frank Reich, completed 22 of a school-record 48 pass attempts for 308 yards -- but didn't get the one completion he needed.

Gelbaugh found Greg Hill at the back of the end zone. The pass was high and went right through the hands of Hill, who landed with both feet in bounds.

Penn State's Ray Isom, the defender on the play, said he knew he was beaten. Paterno was so sure Maryland would convert, he said he was preparing his two-minute offense on the sideline.

Ross opted to try an onside kick, which Atkinson executed well. He scooted it along the ground for about eight yards, then got a nice high bounce that tipped the hand of Penn State's Shane Conlan, but right into the arms of Steve Smith, from De Matha High School in Hyattsville, Md.

Penn State had to punt after only 21 seconds of possession.

But Maryland lost valuable time and field position when Gelbaugh slipped in the backfield for a 13-yard loss at his 15.

"I don't know what happened," Gelbaugh said. "I saw a big hole in their defense, went to step up to take a look into the secondary and just slipped. That hurt us."

It also hurt when Holder dropped a pass for the first time this year, which would have been a 17-yard gain to the 45. Gelbaugh completed four other passes to get the Terrapins in what they thought was field goal position.

But the seconds those two miscues cost will be highlighted by the bungling that ensued. And, in future years, this game will be remembered with the 1975 game when Maryland missed a short field goal that left Penn State a 15-13 winner. Or with the time in 1974 when Penn State intercepted a Maryland kickoff-lateral, scored a touchdown, and won, 24-17.

Ross said he won't "gnash" his teeth over this, because his players "came back from adversity after adversity. God bless 'em, they played their hearts out."