Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said last night that he is convinced now, after Saturday's 25-24 loss at Penn State, that his young team has improved vastly in five weeks and is playing well and with confidence.

"I felt all along we've got some people who can compete with people at any level, and I'm convinced of that now," Ross said. "By the time this group gets older, they'll be pretty good. Saturday, they were confident and pretty intense.

"I would much rather be 3-2 than 2-3, but I think we're playing good ball. When we measure our program right now, we've got to feel pretty good."

Ross, while disappointed with Maryland's 20th straight loss to Penn State, was encouraged that his team could play evenly against the No. 11 team in the country, without starting defensive guard Bruce Mesner and starting quarterback Frank Reich.

Ross said he did not try to find out if it was one of his players or coaches who screamed, "Field goal . . . " on the sideline while Maryland was driving for a possible game-winning score. Mass confusion ensued on the Maryland sideline and eventually time expired without Jess Atkinson getting a chance to try a 52-yard field goal.

In addition, Ross said he didn't know if the 20-yard completion to Sean Sullivan with four seconds left should have been allowed. After looking at film of the game, he volunteered, "I don't know if it hit the ground or not; it could have. And I forgot to ask Sean about it."

"But I think you have to get over a game like that and realize, 'Heck, we played them more competitively than we did two years ago (in a 39-31 loss).' You have to get over a game like that, or you'll be down.

"It's the kind of game where you can look at 15 or 20 plays and say on each one of them, 'If this had gone right, or if this hadn't happened it would never have gotten down to that.' "

Ross, after meeting with the team -- under .500 for the first time in October since 1981 -- said his players had a "good attitude" and added he is glad the Terrapins are playing this week, and glad the game is against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.

Saturday in Byrd Stadium, Maryland will play North Carolina State, which upset No. 12 Georgia Tech.

Ross said he thought Stan Gelbaugh, who threw for 309 yards in his first collegiate start, played well as Reich's replacement.

"He was up and down some," Ross said. "He did some real good things. And at times he didn't throw the ball real well. But he gave us the audibles we needed and handled things well."

Gelbaugh completed 22 of 48 passes. If he had connected with any one of three targets on a two-point conversion with 1:52 left, Maryland probably would have beaten Penn State for the first time in 23 years.

Instead, his pass sailed off the fingertips of receiver Greg Hill. "Stan probably should have waited on his primary receiver a little longer, because their defender fell down," Ross said. "But that's one of those things. It's a split-second decision, so you can't fault Stan."

Ross said he thought the offensive and defensive lines played well, particularly senior defensive guard Greg Thompson, who Ross said, "probably had the best game of his career."

Guard Tommy Parker played all 69 plays on defense, in place of Mesner, who missed the game to observe the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur.

Despite two touchdown passes from Penn State quarterback Doug Strang, Ross was for the most part pleased with the secondary, including Donald Brown, who made an important second-half interception.

Ross was also happy that his team, going into the second half of the season, is healthier than it has been since preseason camp began.

Reich's right arm is no longer in a sling, but it's unknown when he will be able to resume workouts. Ross said guard Len Lynch and fullback Stephon Scriber (injured shoulders) should be able to return to practice this week.

"Overall, I like where we are," Ross said.

Once again, Navy Coach Gary Tranquill was disappointed with the offense in his team's 29-22 loss Saturday at Air Force.

Quarterback Bill Byrne completed 10 of 30 passes for 95 yards and Navy converted only seven of 17 third-down conversions. Tranquill said inconsistency on offense forced his team to settle for three field goals when the Midshipmen had excellent chances to score.

"We have to get better offensively, particular inside the 30," Tranquill said. "We haven't been converting third-down situations."

Once again, the Midshipmen also allowed too many big plays on defense. Air Force, in beating Navy for the third straight time, had 14 plays that gained at least 10 yards. Air Force rushed for 333 yards, getting 100 yards or more from two players.