Stan Gelbaugh had to know this wasn't going to be a breeze when his first pass of the season was intercepted by a Penn State linebacker and run back 32 yards for a touchdown.

Since then, Gelbaugh has been booed during bad games and even during good ones. Hardly anybody seemed to notice the good games, though.

Hardly anybody seemed to notice that he didn't have a bad game the second half of the season. And hardly anybody seemed to notice that Gelbaugh, Maryland's fifth-year senior quarterback, will enter Saturday's Cherry Bowl game against Syracuse having already broken several of Boomer Esiason's school records.

Even Gelbaugh expressed surprise when told he was about to break three of Esiason's passing records in one day. "Boomer was next to God when he was here, and for me to break his records is pretty ironic," he said.

Gelbaugh is neither a great college quarterback nor a terrible one. He simply was caught following two quarterbacks who are good enough to be playing in the NFL: Esiason, who is now with the Cincinnati Bengals and who is the second-rated passer in the AFC, and Frank Reich, a rookie with the Buffalo Bills.

Esiason and Reich, once Gelbaugh's roommates, rarely heard boos. Gelbaugh's record (8-3) is as good as any regular-season mark the Terrapins have had the last four years.

But the perception, ever since that interception against Penn State, has been that Gelbaugh has been more than largely responsible for Maryland's failure to live up to preseason expectations that projected the Terrapins as high as No. 1.

Maryland's coaches and other players disagree. And Gelbaugh said today, "I'm done with having to prove myself as a good quarterback. I deserved some criticism at the beginning of the year when I wasn't playing very well -- when I threw an interception for a touchdown, when I threw four interceptions in one game (at Boston College the second week of the season).

"But when people criticize the last half, or the last seven or eight games, I have to wonder what those people are looking for."

They were probably looking for Gelbaugh to play every week the way he did at Clemson on Nov. 16, when he completed 23 of 35 passes for 361 yards -- which broke Esiason's mark of 355 -- and three touchdowns.

It's difficult to tell how indicative the numbers are, but in the final regular-season game against Virginia, Gelbaugh broke Esiason's Maryland season records for yards passing and total offensive yards. Esiason started for three years, Gelbaugh a season and a half.

Whenever Maryland Coach Bobby Ross is asked whether he has been pleased with Gelbaugh's season, he has said, "We're talking about the most productive quarterback in the history of the University of Maryland."

But Gelbaugh's good games were late in coming, and the home fans were impatient.

"I was very much against the abuse he's been subjected to," Ross said. "It's been tough on Stan, but he's handled it very well."

What Gelbaugh didn't handle particularly well was that season-opening interception.

"I was 12 for 28 (for 137 yards) that day," he recalled. "It was a poor game, bad game. The only time in my life I've ever thrown an interception for a touchdown. And I threw another interception that game that stopped a drive near the goal line. And we lost. That was bad. It affected my confidence."

The team also lost some confidence and struggled for several more weeks. Gelbaugh says he could feel himself getting better weekly, in the process of correcting little problems "like not following through and not having my feet set." Ross says Gelbaugh, in the early part of the season, "was a little late" releasing the ball and forced some passes that got the team into trouble.

Fans in Byrd Stadium started comparing him with his predecessors, Esiason and Reich.

"The people who pay their $12 only seem to remember the bright spots in their careers," Gelbaugh said. "They compare my overall to their best.

"Boomer was the star with the star's personality, the blond hair and all. They remember Frank fighting back from a (separated shoulder) to pull off the greatest comeback in college football history -- The Miracle in Miami. But those things didn't happen every week."

Ross and many of the Maryland players feel Gelbaugh is the least-deserving target of boos. Gelbaugh describes himself as "a guy who wasn't highly recruited, who wanted to get an education (a degree in marketing) and have fun playing football."

He remembers starting off as the seventh-string quarterback as a freshman under then-coach Jerry Claiborne. When Ross arrived in 1982, Gelbaugh was about even with Esiason.

At the end of spring practice, Esiason had won the starting job, Gelbaugh was hurt and Reich jumped ahead into the No. 2 spot.

With Esiason coming back for his senior year and not much practice time available for the third-stringer, Ross asked Gelbaugh to move to wide receiver, which Gelbaugh did.

The next spring, Ross asked Gelbaugh to move back to quarterback to back up Reich. While Gelbaugh was waiting, he filled in as the No. 1 punter.

Last season, when Reich went down with a separated shoulder, Gelbaugh came in and nearly didn't give Reich his job back.

Gelbaugh threw for 308 yards in his first start -- at Penn State, ironically enough (Gelbaugh is from Carlisle, Pa.) -- and didn't find the bench again until Miami led, 31-0, at halftime in the Orange Bowl.

He could run faster than Esiason or Reich, was a definite threat on the sprint-out and had a strong enough arm to drop back and throw. This season, Maryland's offense wasn't supposed to miss a beat.

All that changed with that first interception by Penn State's Mike Zordich. But after starting off with six interceptions in the first two games, Gelbaugh has compiled respectable numbers: 15 touchdowns, 14 interceptions (only eight in the final nine games), a 54 percent completion rate and 225 yards per game passing.

"Of course," Gelbaugh said, "if I could do it all over again, I'd like to go 11-0, too."

Saturday's Cherry Bowl will be played inside the Pontiac Silverdome, but, still, everybody's talking about the cold weather.

Another subject of much conversation was the way the players have entertained themselves. Many have crossed to Windsor, Ontario, and had quite a time, if you listen to senior fullback Rick Badanjek.

"I hear it was great and I missed it," Badanjek said, referring to his teammates' trip to a night spot. "This going out to bars at night, coming in late and trying to practice the next morning is a little tough. The boys are having a pretty good time so far."

Senior linebacker Chuck Faucette, a partier at earlier bowls, said: "I heard it was pretty wild. Me? I've calmed down."

Coach Bobby Ross, who took in a Neil Diamond concert Tuesday night, said he's happy he and his staff formulated the entire game plan before leaving College Park "so everyone can enjoy the festivities."

With the temperature expected to fall below zero tonight, Ross isn't worried about his players missing the midnight curfew.