STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A couple of months ago, Maryland got hammered by West Virginia, 37-7. A couple of weeks ago, West Virginia got keelhauled by Penn State, 51-6. If you put any stock in comparative scores . . .
Making matters worse for the Terrapins is the fact they lost three front-line defenders to academics and, coming off a Grade A stinkeroo performance at North Carolina, appear to be a team on the fast track to oblivion. Meanwhile, there's a rumor echoing through Happy Valley this week that the Nittany Lions are a much better football team than they've shown while going 7-2.
Could it possibly be so, Penn State being an improved squad over its near perfect performance against West Virginia?
"For one, I know I'm a better player now than I was a couple of games ago," assured Richie Anderson. When he came out of the Washington suburb of Sandy Spring a few years ago, Anderson was hailed as "the next great running back at State." He lived up to the billing against the Mountaineers, rushing 15 times for 100 yards, his first century mark as a collegian. He admits he "expected" his first 100-yarder long before this, but is confident he's off to the races now.
As a schoolboy, Richie averaged 8 yards a carry and 200 yards a game as a senior, so he became accustomed to being handed the ball at least two dozen times per game. "I need to be in there and playing a while before I start making good cuts. The more I play, the better I'll get."
Only problem is, coach Joe Paterno doesn't have his quarterback put the ball in just one ballcarrier's gut and Anderson has had to battle senior Gerry Collins and junior Shelly Hammonds for the ball. Then, there was a serious back injury last year that halted Richie's development.
After a flashy first year, a year when State recruits normally are neither seen nor heard, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound speedster averaged 4.8 yards a carry and was the main man running back kickoffs. Next stop, limbo.
6* "It was a growth problem in my back,"
said. "The frustration of just sitting there and watching was unbearable. Fortunately, the academics went well for me, so I was set and determined to come back and make something happen for the team this season."
He had decent games against Georgia Tech, Cincinnati and Southern Cal, but the problem was getting to carry the ball enough. "No one asked me to change my [running] style, but they do want me to be more decisive. That comes with experience [hint-hint]."
For the first time, Anderson got to carry the ball more than a dozen times against Brigham Young, and in 13 tries he chugged off 80 yards. His 24-yard streak to a touchdown against the Cougars had fans drooling. During October, however, the Lions' running attack went south.
"We went into the West Virginia game looking to re-establish the running game, we did and we stuck with it," continued Anderson, now smiling brightly. And, in practices through the off week last week, Paterno has been giving his rushers all the work they desire.
"People always ask if a week off is an advantage or a disadvantage," said the coach, "but to me it has to be an advantage. Besides giving you time to have your bumps and bruises heel, it gives you the opportunity to work with kids to become betterplayers. We have a lot of kids new at their positions and they need the work without the worry of a game Saturday."
The Lions put in three tough days last week, then the players were able to cut out for home. The free time was welcomed because the school is in the midst of mid-term exams and it wasn't until yesterday that Paterno had the lads out in full pads ready to listen to the weekly propaganda about the upcoming opponent.
"As a guy from Maryland," said Anderson, "I feel good about going back home to play. I know a lot of the guys [Terps] from playing against them in high school, so it works as sort of a reunion. I think I've learned how to just go and have fun playing."
It helps, of course, if you show up sporting Richie Anderson's talent.
Besides his football exploits in high school, he was all-county in track and averaged 20 points a game in basketball. Southern Cal was interested in him taking a crack at joining its legendary line of tailbacks (O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett, Charles Smith, Anthony Davis, Marcus Allen, etc.), but, he said, "the coast was just too far from home."
The State depth chart lists Anderson as No. 2 behind Collins and ahead of Hammonds this week and Paterno said, "all three would like to be 'the' guy and carry the ball 30 times a game. Maybe one will step forward."
"I've got two years after this one," said Anderson, suddenly taking on an air of increased maturity and patience. "The more experience I get, the more confident I'll be and [shrug]." He left the listener to fill in the blank.
It could get scary.