Richardson does Collins imitation

The comparison is fairly clear in just about everybody's mind. Everybody's but Wally Richardson's and his coach's, anyway.

Neither the redshirt junior quarterback nor Joe Paterno want to acknowledge that Richardson is treading almost identically a path previously cut by Kerry Collins.

"I don't think about it," is how Richardson responds when asked how he feels about the similarities of his junior season to the one Collins put up in 1993 -- the year before he had the best campaign ever for a Penn State quarterback in 1994.

And Paterno, well, asking him to compare two of his players is like asking Rush Limbaugh to vote Democrat. The legendary coach would rather decorate the Lions' helmets than do that.

But sorry, guys. You can't ignore it anymore.

With his performance in Penn State's 43-14 pasting of Auburn in the Outback Bowl Jan. 1, Richardson ended his season exactly the way Collins did in 1993 -- with a stirring comeback at Michigan State and a sterling showing in the Sunshine State on New Year's Day.

"I thought Wally played an outstanding football game," Paterno said. "He showed a lot of poise, hung in there."

And he put up some pretty good numbers along the way. Richardson completed 13 of 24 passes for 217 yards, an Outback record four touchdowns and one interception. It was Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix who was getting most of the pregame attention as the top signal caller in the game, but Richardson outplayed his Tiger counterpart by a long shot.

In 1993, Collins faced the same scenario. He was matched with Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, 1994. Collins was "the other guy," as Shuler basked in the media glow after finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting.

But after Penn State's 34-13 win over the Volunteers in that game, Collins was the one who had taken the spotlight. His stats? Fifteen of his 24 passes were completed for 162 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Hold them up to what Richardson did against Auburn, then keep in mind that Collins led the Lions to a 38-37 come-from-behind win at Michigan State to end the '93 regular season, much like the last-second vaulting of the Spartans Richardson engineered this past November, and there you have it. Carbon copies.

Richardson certainly hopes he can also duplicate Collins' senior season -- when the now-Carolina Panther set school marks for yards and completions -- in 1996. He has a good chance to do that if the Outback Bowl is any indication.

Going into the game, Lion offensive coordinator Fran Ganter and Paterno had set a game plan for Richardson to come out throwing. The rain didn't get in the way of that. Not really.

"There wasn't a lot of spirals out there," Richardson said, "but the ball was getting where it needed to get."

The pigskin was wet and heavy, but he found a way to burn the Auburn secondary with deep wobblers to super split end Bobby Engram and redshirt sophomore Joe Jurevicius.

But what Richardson showed most in the game didn't involve anything physical. He showed how much he has improved upstairs in 1995.

He completed passes to seven different receivers in the game, connecting with nobody more than four times. That is something Richardson struggled with at times in 1995, as he occasionally displayed a vice for eyeing his primary receiver and his primary receiver only.

The fact that he hit so many different players in the Outback Bowl indicates that he has kicked that habit. Chalk that up to one of the many lessons Richardson picked up in this, his first full season at the helm of the offense.

But he said the biggest thing the experience of this season handed him was the knowledge that he has to take some chances and not wait for things to come to him. He needs to force the issue, like he did on two bombs to Engram when it looked like the senior was pretty well covered.

"Sometimes," Richardson said, "you've just got to let the ball fly."

And he also learned how to handle criticism, perhaps undue criticism. Richardson shouldered his share of blame for three Lion losses this year, despite the fact that in those three losses -- to Wisconsin, Northwestern and Ohio State -- he completed 63 of 104 passes for 561 yards.

In fact, the redshirt junior set a Penn State record for completions in a season with 193. And he did lead the Lions to comeback wins against four teams. That was much more than Collins could boast of in his junior year, and it all culminated in the monsoons of Tampa.

The conditions considered, was it his best performance of the year?

"I guess so," Richardson said. "I could have completed every pass, but I'm just glad we won."

And glad to shed some more of the naysayers off his back -- critics Engram hopes will leave Richardson alone for good.

"I've told you what kind of competitor he was and what kind of bright kid he was, and I said just give him some time," Engram preached. "Everybody wanted to be so hard on him, compare him to Kerry Collins."

Maybe that isn't fair to Richardson. He may end up being better than that.