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The Land Rover

Times Staff Writer

Plenty of people have questioned Oklahoma running back Quentin Griffin about his height, but this was the first rodent.

As Griffin stood onstage during an appearance in Anaheim the other day, Mickey Mouse sidled up close.

“Mickey was giving me a hard time,” Griffin said. “But I think I’ve got him by a couple of inches.”

The truth of it: only if you don’t count the ears.

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At 5 feet 7 and 195 pounds, Griffin is Oklahoma’s little big man, a 1,740-yard rusher this season with 3,612 career yards.

Those numbers put him in the company of such Sooner greats as Billy Sims, Greg Pruitt, Steve Owens and Joe Washington -- all that by a player who didn’t even start his senior year at Nimitz High in Aldine, Texas, outside Houston.

“The first time I saw him when he visited, I thought, ‘Are you sure we want to recruit this guy?’ ” said Merv Johnson, a longtime assistant coach under Barry Switzer who still works as director of football operations and as the color analyst on the Sooner radio network.

“Now I think you’ve got to put him right there with all those running backs who’ve had those numbers in the past,” Johnson said. “I think it’s quite remarkable what he’s accomplished.”

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Griffin’s numbers will grow Wednesday in the Rose Bowl, as the NCAA moves to include bowl games in the official records for the first time.

Technically, he needs only 23 yards to pass Sims for the Oklahoma single-season rushing record. But Oklahoma, unlike the NCAA, will take the logical step of retroactively updating its records to include bowl games.

That will put Sims at 1,896 yards, with Griffin 156 behind.

Sims will hold the career record at 4,118, followed by Washington, Owens and then Griffin, at 3,794 and counting.

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You could quibble about the number of games today’s players play and question whether Griffin belongs in such company, but Johnson points out another issue.

Griffin’s accomplishments have come in an Oklahoma system in which the forward pass is no longer an afterthought.

“Some of those players played when they were throwing it three or four times a game,” Johnson said. (Oklahoma attempted only three passes in the 1979 Orange Bowl, during Sims’ career.)

“And those guys didn’t have to pass protect or catch the football, either,” Johnson said.

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Take note: When the bowls are included, Griffin ranks as Oklahoma’s all-time leader in receptions -- regardless of position -- with 167.

It’s all heady stuff for Griffin, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards his senior season in high school but had to share time with the starter, Maurice Harris, who went on to Sam Houston State.

“It’s been great, coming from being on the ‘B’ team in high school to being able to play in the Rose Bowl,” Griffin said. “That’s an awesome experience.”

Growing up, he honed his game in a way fewer and fewer players do anymore.

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“Now, they probably play video games,” Griffin said. “When I was younger, I was always playing sandlot ball. I played in my neighborhood. We had this big field, and we’d play a game where you just tried to kill the man with the ball. It was pretty rough. Guys would come at you pretty hard.”

The recruiters did not come at him hard, however. Only Oklahoma and Texas A&M; offered scholarships.

“I didn’t really feel short until I came to college,” Griffin said. “Now, most people bring it up.”

His freshman year at Oklahoma, he was designated to redshirt.

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Injuries and his performance on the scout team changed that.

“We couldn’t tackle him,” Johnson said.

The redshirt came off, seven games into the season.

Somewhere in those sandlot days, Griffin developed the quick step and the elusiveness that are his trademark to this day.

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“He’s shifty,” Oklahoma offensive lineman Mike Skinner said. “He does things that surprise me, and I watch him every day. You think he’ll be almost on the ground, and somehow he’ll put a hand down and be off.”

Tight end Trent Smith has seen it too.

“I was blocking a guy in practice one day, and Quentin made a cut and went between me and the defensive guy and underneath our arms. And he never touched me.”

There have been faster Oklahoma backs.

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“I ran a 4.37 [40-yard dash] once, but I was about 170 or 180 pounds then,” Griffin said. “Most of that stuff is overrated. Like Jerry Rice wasn’t that fast, clock-wise, but you don’t see guys catching him.”

There’s an almost-automatic inclination to compare any short, shifty back to Barry Sanders, who played at rival Oklahoma State, but Johnson refuses it.

“I think I’d be remiss if I tried to compare anyone to Barry Sanders,” he said.

“What Quentin does have is the ability to change directions at 90 degrees and never lose speed. A lot of backs have to slow down and chop their steps and then take time to regain their speed.”

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Washington State has impressive numbers against the run, but everybody knows that 82.3-yard opponent rushing average was compiled mostly against Pacific 10 Conference teams that were passing the ball to try to catch up after falling behind.

The one really ugly game was against Ohio State, when Maurice Clarett ran for 230 of the Buckeyes’ 292 rushing yards. Clarett had 194 rushing yards in the second half, after injuries thinned the Cougar linebacking corps.

Washington State defensive tackle Rien Long, the Outland Trophy winner, said the Cougars are better than they looked against Ohio State.

And he insists they aren’t fooled by Griffin’s lack of size. They’ve seen the string of nine 100-yard games, including the Sooners’ entire Big 12 schedule, and noted that 248-yard game against Texas.

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“He’s a tremendous back. You’ve got to be sure you wrap him up,” Long said.

“He might be as tall as Mickey, but he’s a strong, explosive back. I think he’s got Mickey in that department.”

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*--* ROSE BOWL Washington State (10-2) vs. Oklahoma (11-2) Wednesday at Pasadena 2 p.m., Channel 7

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*--* SUGAR BOWL Georgia (12-1) vs. Florida State (9-4) Wednesday at New Orleans 5:30 p.m., Channel 7

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*--* FIESTA BOWL Miami (12-0) vs. Ohio State (13-0) Friday at Tempe, Ariz. 5 p.m., Channel 7

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Coverage...D6-8


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