ARLINGTON, Texas – Dexter McCluster, the do-it-all 5-foot-8, 170-pound tailback for Ole Miss needs 15 yards to reach 1,000 for the season, and as Oklahoma State defenders get ready for Saturday’s ATT Cotton Bowl they’re very clear about who they need to stop.
It’s fullback Andy Hartmann.
The Cowboys (9-3) come into the game with the No. 2 rush defense in the Big 12, giving up just 87.7 yards a game.
McCluster was the driving force for the Rebels (8-4), averaging 219.6 all-purpose yards and 164.2 rushing yards over his last five SEC games.
Hartmann, at 5-10, 243 pounds, is much more intriguing to the Cowboys, largely because they didn’t see his kind much this season.
Most Big 12 teams, and even some OSU non-conference opponents, run the spread offense and rarely line up in a formation that includes a fullback.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, leans heavily on the bruising blocking of Hartmann and will also use the fullback in the passing game.
“There’s nobody that we’ve played in the Big 12 that lines up with the fullback, pounds the football, runs the power, runs the counter, the play-action pass. We saw an inkling of it from some teams, but they didn’t major in it like Ole Miss does,” Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Bill Young said.
Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin doesn’t believe his use of the fullback will require a major adjustment for Oklahoma State.
“They have a lot of experience on that side of the ball. I’m sure they will be fine,” he said.
Indeed, stopping the fullback is a pre-cursor to stopping McCluster, the man who really lifted the Rebels’ offense beginning with the 30-17 win over Arkansas on Oct. 24 when he had 137 yards receiving, 123 rushing.
It became clear the direction Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was headed.
The second half of McCluster’s season was punctuated with a 282-yard, 4-touchdown performance in the Rebels’ 42-17 win over Tennessee, which clinched bowl-eligibility at a time when confidence was shaky. The Rebels had lost 33-20 at Auburn in their previous SEC game, sputtering on offense even with McCluster’s big plays.
“He can hurt you in so many ways, but our defense, we honestly think we can contain him if hit him and hit him early. If you let him get going it’s going to be a problem, but if you hit him, hit him early and get him shook up, we’ll be OK,” OSU defensive end Jermiah Price said.
Rough play early won’t necessarily help the Cowboys, Ole Miss players said.
“Dexter’s been getting hit all year,” defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. “He’s the type that if he’s going to get hit the next play he’s going to do it anyway. Hitting is hitting. It doesn’t bother him.”
Over the last five SEC games only Mississippi State held McCluster to fewer than 100 yards. He finished with 82 yards on 16 rushing attempts, fewer attempts than average once the Rebels hit the pass-first mode in what became a 41-27 loss.
Even then McCluster scored on a 52-yard catch and finished with 145 total yards.
When McCluster gets in space he can find the end zone without a fullback.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in front of him. He’s going to make plays eventually,” OSU linebacker Patrick Lavine said. “The biggest thing is everyone needs to be in position. With a guy like him, so fast, one mistake can be a touchdown.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal