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November 14, 2009

McCluster burns record book, mauls Vols

OXFORD, Miss. -- Capital One Bowl scout Stuart Farb was a popular man on Ole Miss' sideline in the waning minutes of Saturday's game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

Farb wasn't committing to anything, obviously, but Ole Miss clearly piqued his interest with a resounding 42-17 whipping of Tennessee in front of 61,422 fans.

Farb said he had enjoyed the atmosphere of The Grove, the hospitality of Oxford and a gorgeous, sunny day in north Mississippi.

Mostly, though, Dexter McCluster had turned Farb's head and given the scout from the Orlando, Fla.-based New Year's Day bowl game a reason to think the Rebels just might be a marketable team next month.

McCluster, a senior from Largo, Fla., rushed 25 times for 282 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, shattering Dou Innocent's school-record. McCluster added 42 yards receiving, giving him 324 all-purpose yards, which broke Deuce McAllister's record in that category as well.

"I was aware of the numbers around halftime," McCluster said. "They started throwing numbers out, but I told them I didn't want to know. We had another half to go. Then they told me I needed three yards and I told coach to throw me out there."

Tennessee has been playing football for 113 seasons. Entering Saturday's game, Alabama's Bobby Humphrey in 1986 and Colorado's Mike Prichard in 1990 co-owned the record for rushing yards against the Volunteers, each with 217. McCluster blew that away in spectacular fashion.

"I've never seen a player that plays tailback do the 'Wildcat' stuff that he does," Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin said. "He can go out and run receiver routes. There are some guys like Reggie (Bush), and there are some other guys that have gone out there and run receiver routes. But he's a unique talent. I watched him run up and down and I can't tell you how many times I looked at (Tennessee associate head coach/defensive line) Coach (Ed) Orgeron and said, 'Go get one of those.'"

McCluster said he was motivated to beat Orgeron, who coached three volatile seasons at Ole Miss before being fired in November 2007. That theme was part of his message to his teammates during a team meeting Friday night.

"I was telling them that I'm not the kind of person to talk to the team, but I let them know how much I wanted to win this game," McCluster said. "They followed me, and I got the job done. It was a lot (because of Orgeron). It was fun and emotional at the same time. He brought a lot of us in here in 2006, so we just wanted to show him how much we've grown and what we've become."

McCluster scored on runs of 15, 23, 32 and 71 yards Saturday, the last one a highlight-reel effort that saw him get bottled at the line of scrimmage, cut left and then break back across the field, outracing everyone in orange on his way to the end zone.

"When I cut, I landed on (offensive guard John Jerry)," McCluster said. "It caught my balance. After that, it was one man to beat. I made a move and had two blockers. It was a lot of field. …I saw No. 14 (Eric) Berry coming. I was looking dead in his eyes because I knew I was going to set him up. And I just burst to the sideline, one cut and he missed. I saw two defenders and I wasn't going to go down. They called me small all game. They hit me, and I came up a little short."

McCluster's first touchdown capped the Rebels opening drive and was the start of an entertaining, see-saw first half. Tennessee answered with a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Crompton to Jeff Cottam to tie the score at 7-7.

McCluster's 23-yard touchdown run out of the "Wild Rebel" gave Ole Miss a short-lived 14-7 lead. Tennessee responded with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Crompton to Denarius Moore to tie the game at 14-14 early in the second quarter.

McCluster's 32-yard touchdown run four minutes later, one that was aided by two huge blocks by fullback Andy Hartmann, gave the Rebels the lead for good.

Tennessee's opening possession of the second half ended with Daniel Lincoln's 27-yard field goal, cutting Ole Miss' lead to 21-17. The Volunteers appeared ready to steal momentum away on the Rebels' ensuing possession. Wes Brown intercepted a Jevan Snead pass and returned it three yards to the Ole Miss 43. Four plays later, however, the Volunteers were four yards short of a first down.

Ole Miss put Tennessee away immediately. Brandon Bolden's 1-yard touchdown run capped a 13-play, 62-yard drive. Then McCluster did his thing, breaking the Volunteers' spirit with the aforementioned 71-yard touchdown romp.

"That play is designed to go four yards," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "So when he got four, I was excited. Then I got real excited when he got lost behind John Jerry, and then he hit out the back door and I love Dexter against a free safety because he's usually going to make them miss. That is some suddenness. He's so quick. That was fun to watch. …Most backs would have gotten four yards on that one."

Ole Miss added a 4-yard touchdown run from Bolden with 2:31 left for the game's final score.

Ole Miss improved to 7-3 overall and 3-3 in the Southeastern Conference, gaining bowl eligibility with the win. Tennessee fell to 5-5 overall and 2-4 in league play. Representatives from five bowls, including the Capital One, Outback and Chick-fil-A Bowls, were in attendance Saturday and figure to be back Saturday when the Rebels entertain LSU.

"This gives us a big lift," Nutt said. "There's nothing like winning. It solves a lot of problems. There are a lot of guys sore, but I bet there will be fewer guys in the training room. It just lifts you up. Now we have a chance to go to a bowl, good bowls, and we're excited about that. That's the best motivator right there."


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