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Big catches in key situations, not raw numbers, define the Sooners' clutch pass receivers
Oklahoma football always hasnâ€™t had star receivers. Hard to get a lot of notoriety when a pass sails your way once a month.
But the Sooners always have had clutch receivers. Pass catchers who produce key plays in big games. Tight ends and flankers who could get lost in the split-T or wishbone or I formation, but would come up big when a savvy, though not necessarily strong-armed, quarterback would toss the ball forward rather than backward.
Sooner Spectator sked for a list of OUâ€™s top 10 clutch receivers of all time.
Hereâ€™s a stunner: Only one Bob Stoops-era receiver made the list. Nothing against the Stoops troops, who have set records galore in the last seven years. In fact, OUâ€™s five top career reception leaders â€” Mark Clayton, Quentin Griffin, Trent Smith, Antwone Savage and Curtis Fagan â€” all are Stoops players.
But this isnâ€™t about raw production. This is about clutch production. This is about making big plays at critical times.
Thatâ€™s why a wishbone guy has a fighting chance on this list. That and the amazing surprise factor. Five wishbone receivers made this list; all averaged at least 19.9 yards per catch, and one averaged a ridiculous 27 yards per catch.
This list ranges from the Bennie Owen era, a player in the pre-World War I era, to the 21st century. It includes a couple of Bud Wilkinson receivers and even a Tom Stidham player from OUâ€™s first Orange Bowl squad.
Let the countdown begin:
10. JOHN PORTERFIELD, 1961-63
Bud Wilkinsonâ€™s last hurrah as the Sooner coach came in 1962. Seldom-remembered John Porterfield played a major role. He had just nine career catches, but four were for touchdowns.
The end from Bixby High School had just four catches as an OU junior in 1962. Three went for touchdowns, including two in the defacto Big Eight title game.
As a sophomore, Porterfield also had a 19-yard touchdown catch that gave OU a 14-10 lead over Colorado, a game the Sooners eventually lost 22-14. Losses were common in 1960 and 1961; the Sooners suffered 11 combined losses, after Wilkinson teams had lost just 13 games his first 13 years as coach.
But Oklahoma football rallied in 1962. Despite losses to Notre Dame and Texas, the Sooners reeled off five straight victories in the conference and met Nebraska, led by new coach Bob Devaney, for the right to play in the Orange Bowl.
OU led 7-0 when Wilkinson turned to trickery. Quarterback Monte Deere pitched to Joe Don Looney, who lateraled back to Deere. Then Deere threw to a leaping Porterfield in the corner of the end zone.
In the third quarter, Deere again hit Porterfield for a TD, and the Sooners rolled 34-6.
The next week, OU routed Oklahoma State and Deere again hit his new favorite receiver for a touchdown. The championship drought was over.
9. WAYNE HOFFMAN, 1972-74
The Porterfield of the wishbone era. Hoffman, a Spiro High School teammate of star linebacker Rod Shoate, played defensive end as a sophomore, then switched to tight end to replace Albert Chandler.
Hoffman had some amazing statistics. In two seasons, Hoffman totaled just 11 catches, but for 219 yards and eight touchdowns. Thatâ€™s right, Hoffman had just three catches that didnâ€™t go for TDs. And his yards-per-catch average was 19.9.
Hoffman made all-Big Eight in 1974 despite his limited production.
8. BILL JENNINGS, 1938-40
In 2006, OUâ€™s tall receivers give the Sooners an advantage. In 1938, when the Sooners reached the Orange Bowl for the first time, 6-foot sophomore Bill Jennings did the same.
Jennings, who later became an assistant on Bud Wilkinsonâ€™s staff, finished with amazing numbers for pre-war football: 67 career catches, 728 yards and six touchdowns. Many of the TDs were big.
In 1938, the Sooners beat Texas 13-0, and the second touchdown came with five seconds left in the second quarter, when Jennings leaped over 5-foot-6 Gilly Davis to spear a touchdown pass from Bob Seymour.
â€śI just turned around for it, and there it was, right in my mitts," Jennings said at the time. "If I hadnâ€™t caught it, it would have knocked me down."
Later that season, Jenningsâ€™ 17-yard catch set up OUâ€™s first touchdown in a 14-0 victory over Nebraska, and he caught a TD pass in a 19-0 shutout of Oklahoma A&M.
Jenningsâ€™ clutch play was not over. As a senior in 1940, Jenningsâ€™ 43-yard touchdown catch gave OU a 16-7 lead over Texas, though the Longhorns rallied to win 19-16.
7. STEVE RHODES, 1976-80
Rhodes played as a true freshman and made an impact. He later redshirted and still was making big plays in 1980.
Rhodes finished his career with 46 catches for 1,044 yards; thatâ€™s a 22.7 yards-per-catch average.
Here are the two days to remember.
As a freshman at Nebraska in 1976, Rhodes produced two huge catches, and neither was orthodox. Down 17-13 with 3:30 left, OU was 85 yards from paydirt. But Rhodes grabbed Woodie Shepardâ€™s halfback pass for a 48-yard gain, then Rhodes took Dean Blevinsâ€™ pass and pitched to Elvis Peacock for a 32-yard gain on a hook-and-lateral, one of the most stunning plays of the Barry Switzer era.
OU won 20-17.
Fast forward four years. Rhodesâ€™ career had been slowed by injury, but he capped his Sooner days in the Orange Bowl against Florida State. An injured hamstring muscle made Rhodes doubtful for the game, but he played, and a darn good thing for the Sooners that he did.
Trailing 17-10 late in the game, Rhodes outleaped a Florida State defender to haul in a deep J.C. Watts pass for a 42-yard gain. Then Rhodes caught an 11-yard TD pass from Watts with 1:27 left, and a 2-point conversion gave the Sooners an 18-17 victory.
6. JOHN REDDELL, 1950-52
OU didnâ€™t throw much during Bud Wilkinsonâ€™s dynasty. Except in 1950, when Claude Arnoldâ€™s favorite receiver was Reddell, a big sophomore from Classen High School.
Reddell came up big in big games: an 11-yard touchdown catch against Kansas, capping a 35-13 victory after OU trailed 13-7; a TD catch from Billy Vessels to give OU a 49-28 lead over Nebraska; a TD catch to ignite a 41-14 rout of Oklahoma A&M.
And Reddell wasnâ€™t through in 1951, when optioneer Eddie Crowder took over at quarterback. Reddell caught a 67-yard TD pass to spark a 55-14 rout of Colorado, and a circus catch for a touchdown against Iowa State, in a 35-6 victory.
Reddellâ€™s final career numbers were 31 catches for 766 yards and eight TDs. Thatâ€™s 24.7 yards per catch.
5. MONTFORD â€śHAPâ€ť JOHNSON, 1914-16
The Oklahoma aerial circus did not begin with Bob Stoops and Mike Leach. Think 85 years earlier.
Bennie Owensâ€™ Sooners of 1914-15 pioneered the forward pass in college football, particularly in the middle part of the country. Forest Geyer, nicknamed â€śSpotâ€ť for his pinpoint passing, became OUâ€™s first superstar. His throws revolutionized offense and invigorated the Sooners to records of 9-1-1 in 1914 and 10-0 in 1915.
And little Hap Johnson was Geyerâ€™s go-to guy.
One of four brothers who helped jump-start early-day Oklahoma football, Johnson was Geyerâ€™s favorite receiver and made some of the biggest plays of the Owen era.
In 1915, OU beat Texas 14-13, and both TDs came on Johnson touchdown catches, the second in the corner of the end zone, a play the national press later dubbed one of the most thrilling plays of the season.
Texas coach Dave Allerdice called OUâ€™s performance â€śthe most thrilling exhibition of forward passing ever seen in the West.â€ť
But Johnson didnâ€™t save all his heroics for Texas. In 1914, Johnson caught a touchdown pass in a 13-0 win over Missouri and a TD pass in a 16-16 tie with Kansas. In 1915, Johnson caught a pass against Henry Kendall College (Tulsa U.) and squirmed across the goal line to give the Sooners a 7-6 halftime lead. OU won 14-13.
4. MARK CLAYTON, 2001-04
The greatest OU wide receiver ever. Thereâ€™s really not any debate. His numbers are unmatched, and frankly, only Eddie Hinton approaches Claytonâ€™s talent.
Clayton finished with 221 catches for 3,241 yards and 31 touchdowns. Those arenâ€™t John Porterfield numbers.
But Clayton came up big in big games. His breakout game was Texas in 2001, when Clayton was a little-known freshman. From Nate Hybl, and then Jason White, Clayton made six catches for 65 yards on a day when yards were hard to come by. He provided an outlet for two quarterbacks struggling to survive, and OU won 14-3.
Two years later, Clayton was a star, and no play was bigger than in Colorado, where the â€™03 Sooners were extended for one of the few times all season. OU led just 27-20, but Colorado smelled an upset. The Sooners faced 3rd-and-6 with little more than two minutes left in the game; White threw a short pass to Clayton, who turned the play into a 59-yard touchdown.
3. JON HARRISON, 1970-71
Jack Mildrenâ€™s high school teammate at Abilene Cooper didnâ€™t follow Mildren to OU. Harrison arrived via junior college. But once Harrison got to Norman, he went to work.
In those two seasons in which the Sooners morphed into a wishbone monster, Harrison had 30 catches for 811 yards and six touchdowns. Thatâ€™s 27 yards a catch.
And Harrison played big in big games. The biggest game.
No Sooner receiver ever produced the way Harrison produced in the 1971 Game of the Century. Four catches, 115 yards, two TDs. And for good measure, a 51-yard pass completion off an end-around.
Harrisonâ€™s 32-yard catch set up OUâ€™s first field goal. His 43-yard catch set up his own 24-yard TD catch from Mildren. Harrisonâ€™s 51-yard pass to Albert Chandler set up OUâ€™s third touchdown. And Harrisonâ€™s 17-yard TD catch gave OU its final lead, 31-28, though Nebraska won 35-31.
2. TINKER OWENS, 1972-75
The little brother of Steve Owens made a name for himself, and he did it in clutch situations. As a 1972 freshman, Owens helped the Sooners rally from a 14-0 deficit at Nebraska. Owens catches of 39 and 13 yards set up OUâ€™s first TD, and his 22-yard catch set up another. The Sooners won 17-14.
In the Sugar Bowl that year, Owens had 132 receiving yards and a TD, and OU won 14-0.
Big plays became an Owens staple. He received a 40-yard halfback pass from Joe Washington for a TD to give OU a 21-6 halftime lead over Texas, en route to a 52-13 rout.
Owensâ€™ personal favorite play was a 52-yard TD catch from Steve Davis with 3:08 left in the third quarter in the 1973 Miami game. It gave OU a 21-20 lead, and the Sooners survived 24-20.
In his final game, Owens made a 40-yard catch from Davis, and on the next play Owensâ€™ sidekick, Billy Brooks, scored on a 39-yard reverse. OU beat Michigan 14-6 in the Orange Bowl to secure the national championship.
Owensâ€™ numbers were spectacular, considering he played in the wishbone era and split time his last three years with Brooks, a fellow NFL receiver. Owens had 70 catches for 1,619 yards, 11 TDs and a 23.1-yard average.
1. KEITH JACKSON, 1984-87
The best kind of player. Great, and great in big games.
Any OU fan of the 1980s will have his favorite Jackson play, and all were unique for a big tight end.
The 88-yard reverse against Nebraska in 1985. The 71-yard touchdown catch against Penn State in the Orange Bowl, which lifted OU to a 25-10 victory and the 1985 national championship. The theatrics in the last 90 seconds against Nebraska in 1986.
Letâ€™s review that game. OU trailed 17-10 late in the game, but Jackson outwrestled Husker defenders for a 17-yard TD catch from Jamelle Holieway with 1:22 left, and the Sooners had a tie. But OU inexplicably got the ball back, and on 3rd-and-12, Holieway fired to Jackson, who made a juggling one-handed catch and zipped to the Husker 14-yard line. Tim Lashar came on to kick a field goal and give OU a 20-17 victory.
Jacksonâ€™s numbers were superb for a wishbone tight end: 68 career catches, 1,609 yards, 15 TDs.
But numbers donâ€™t tell Jacksonâ€™s entire story. They seldom do for clutch receivers.
Editor's Note: This article appears in the Sept. 26, 2006 issue of Sooner Spectator.