When last seen, Penn State was limping out of the 1984 season having lost to Notre Dame and Pittsburgh by a total of 57 points, without a bowl bid for the first time in 14 years, without being ranked for one of the few times in the last 20 years, and with the worst record since Coach Joe Paterno's first season in 1966.

But that was last year, and Paterno is beginning his 20th season at Penn State by working the whiskers off his Nittany Lions to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Penn State hasn't been a national threat since the 1982 season, when it won the national championship. Nine losses the last two years (6-5 last season) might not be cause for full-scale reevaluation at most schools. But it's not acceptable to Penn State, which will open its season Saturday in College Park against Maryland.

As Paterno said recently, "You lose nine games in two years when you're not accustomed to doing that, then I think you've got to say, 'Hey, there are two ways we can go: we can be happy with this, or we can go back to being national championship contenders.'

"In that sense, it's a rebuilding year."

To that end, Penn State has had one of its toughest preseason workouts, if not the hardest, since 1966.

Rogers Alexander, the standout senior linebacker from DeMatha High School, said, "We definitely have some rebuilding to do after the way we finished last year (44-7 loss to Notre Dame and 31-11 to Pitt).

"It's been really, really hard this preseason. Very hard. But we can't cry or complain. We haven't done anything to show that we can play to a higher level without Joe pushing us. If we had known we'd be in for this kind of work, I think we'd have gotten our acts together last year."

Paterno acknowledged: "We probably have not had as much tough scrimmaging as we've had this preseason. We've had some awfully tough hitting, maybe more than in other years . . . We weren't that tough physically last year. We really didn't go after people."

At lot of people hear such talk and grow suspicious that Paterno and his Nittany Lions are blowing smoke. Rebuilding at Penn State? Impossible, some are surely saying.

The last two years really have been unusual at Penn State. After the 11-1 record and Sugar Bowl victory at the end of the 1982 season, the Nittany Lions lost their first three games in '83 and ended 8-4-1. Last year was worse.

Of the two-year period, Paterno said, "We had some problems at quarterback. We ran out of quality wide-outs. And we weren't aware enough to change our style of play. We've really been a passing team as much as a running team. If we had been smarter, we wouldn't have thrown the ball as much because we didn't have the quality people.

"And in that sense, we made some tactical mistakes and maybe overestimated what some kids could do that early."

There probably won't be such overestimation this year. The tougher scrimmages -- first-team offense against first-team defense -- are designed to tell just which players are tough. Before the Lions come to Byrd Stadium on Saturday.

"You never know until you play," Paterno said. "But I think we're much further along than we were this time last year. We'll be a better football team -- opening up against Maryland -- than we were at any time last year. I'd be very surprised if we're not better."

The general feeling here is that the Nittany Lions have as much talent -- if not more -- than in many of the seasons Penn State finished ranked in the top 10 (13 of Paterno's 19 years).

D.J. Dozier, coming off a knee injury, "has to be considered one of the premier (running) backs in the country," Maryland Coach Bobby Ross said today.

As a freshman, Dozier rushed for 1,002 yards in 1983, but with various injuries he fell off to 691 yards last year. When asked about Dozier, Paterno said, "D.J. is actually bigger, stronger, quicker and faster (than before offseason arthroscopic surgery)."

A healthy Dozier and fullback Steve Smith -- also from DeMatha -- running behind an offensive line of upperclassmen (three juniors, three seniors) immediately give Penn State a big-time backfield.

Paterno felt that he might have rushed along several young players, a couple of them receivers. But he now says sophomore split end Ray Roundtree, who will start, is ready to contribute heavily.

Penn State's big question mark could be at quarterback, where John Shaffer, a junior who has completed 39 percent of his passes as a two-year substitute, will start.

Some will recall the 1983 season, when Penn State's quarterback problems largely were responsible for an 0-3 start. But Paterno said this year's quarterback situation bears little resemblance.

"Two years ago, Doug Strang was our starting quarterback coming into the season, but for some reason had a disastrous preseason," Paterno said. "The kids themselves were starting to have some doubts whether we could handle it . . . But both kids (Shaffer and Matt Knizner) have had a good preseason."

Penn State's defense appears to be the usual: tough. Alexander, tackle Mike Russo, end Shane Conlan, cornerback Lance Hamilton and safety Ray Isom help make the defense solid.

All the key players have been around long enough to give the Nittany Lions plenty of experience.

"In the past two years we've built ourselves up so that we can do something," Dozier said. "We know we should be good. But how good are we going to be?

"We've got to play up to our potential. We haven't done it yet and I don't know why. We've got to get back to Penn State football. We've got to."