THE COLOR he is most commonly identified with now is midnight green, but underneath Donovan McNabb's Eagles jersey, his heart still pumps a little orange.

McNabb, who returned to his alma mater for a football game for the first time since he left for the NFL in 1999, was in a Carrier Dome suite on Sept. 5 for Syracuse's season-opening, 23-20 overtime loss to Minnesota. Seated beside him was another renowned former Syracuse quarterback and onetime Eagle, Don McPherson, who this summer was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

What McNabb saw, after recent seasons in which Syracuse's football fortunes had badly ebbed, were reasons for hope: a new coach (SU alumnus Doug Marrone), an unlikely new quarterback (Greg Paulus) and some old-time enthusiasm (a near-capacity crowd of 48,617).

McNabb was particularly intrigued to see how Paulus, a graduate student who had spent the previous 4 years as a point guard at Duke, would fare in his first football game since he was one of the nation's most highly recruited quarterback prospects as a senior at Syracuse's Christian Brothers Academy in 2004. He said he was impressed by the poise shown by Paulus, who completed 19 of 31 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown, although he threw an interception in OT that opened the door for the favored Golden Gophers to escape with a victory.

Paulus' trial by fire figures to get hotter today when he goes against No. 7 Penn State (1-0) at Beaver Stadium.

"I could imagine myself playing basketball in college," said McNabb, who actually did play both sports at Syracuse for a time. "But for me to play [only] basketball and then football? I don't know. That's kind of tough."

Paulus is at Syracuse because of a new NCAA rule that allows graduate students whose eligibility in one sport has expired to transfer and play one season in another.

"I remember when the whole process was going about," McNabb said of Paulus' long journey back to his hometown and football. "He had a workout with Green Bay, then he went to the Michigan spring game. All of a sudden, Syracuse popped up.

"I remember talking to the AD [athletic director Daryl Gross] and I'm, like, 'How did this come about?' But I've heard nothing but good things about [Paulus]. He has the maturity of an older guy, being in tough games [as a Duke basketball player] and knowing how to handle it."

For someone who had been away from football so long, Paulus impressed McNabb.

"I thought he played well, being that he'd been out 4 years [actually, closer to 5] and hasn't been under center since his senior year in high school," McNabb said. "I thought he managed the game well. He made that mistake at the end, but he will benefit from that mistake.

"It's a great story. You're talking about a guy who decided to play basketball in college, had opportunities to play for the national championship, took his team deep into the [NCAA] Tournament every year, and still had an opportunity to play his dream position, quarterback, at the school he always wanted to go to."

Syracuse was 35-14 in McNabb's four seasons there; from 2005 to '08, under Greg Robinson, the Orange was 10-37, with a 3-9 mark a year ago that included a 55-13 humiliation by Penn State.

McNabb thinks Marrone will get the Orange back on track, although the turnaround might not begin against a Penn State team that is favored by 29 points.

"It's going to be a tough one this week," McNabb said of the figurative uphill climb of Mount Nittany that Paulus faces today. *

Daily News sports writer Les Bowen contributed to this report.