By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
ARLINGTON, Texas – The new year followed the themes of the old year for Ole Miss: Defense and Dexter McCluster.
McCluster became the first player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against Oklahoma State as Ole Miss defeated the No. 21-ranked Cowboys 21-7 before a crowd of 77,928 at Cowboys Stadium on Saturday.
McCluster, the Cotton Bowl’s offensive MVP for a second straight season, gained 184 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 34 carries. His 86-yard burst in the second quarter was the game’s only score until OSU tied things past the midway point in the third.
The Rebels also held Oklahoma State to 259 yards, 140 on the ground, well below the Cowboys’ Big 12-leading average of 191.7 rushing yards.
In a game of missed opportunities on offense, the biggest stat for Ole Miss was in the turnovers where it gave away five but took seven.
“I wish we could have helped our defense more, but the bottom line is winning,” said Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt, whose teams are 3-2 in five Cotton Bowl appearances. “Our defense was relentless. They chased the ball, and they put themselves in the right position, and Tyrone (Nix) called a tremendous game.”
Oklahoma State (9-4) was unable to run consistently off tackle or around the end with handoffs or pitch-outs.
The Cowboys got 94 yards from backup tailback Kendall Hunter, 46 of them on one option carry.
The crowning achievement for the defense, however, was a goalline stand late in the third quarter. The Cowboys had a first down at the 9, then second down at the 2. All-Big 12 tailback Keith Toston was stuffed on three straight plays, the third time by nose tackle Jerrell Powe after a timeout.
“I was just like, ‘I can’t let them score.’ Coach Nix is always talking about overcoming adversity. We couldn’t let them score,” Powe said.
Toston was responsible for Oklahoma State’s only score on third-and-goal from inside the 1, pulling up and throwing a touchdown to tight end Wilson Youman.
The defense finally locked up the victory with its own score, a 34-yard fumble return by linebacker Patrick Trahan with 3:12 left in the third quarter to make it 21-7.
Ole Miss (9-4) took a 14-7 lead when McCluster scored on a 2-yard run, taking advantage of fumble by OSU quarterback Zac Robinson that was recovered by end Kentrell Lockett. That set up Ole Miss at the OSU 34.
“You hate to give away a football game, and at some point you have to step up and make plays,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said. “Our defense played tremendous. We didn’t give them a chance. We played sloppy, put the ball on the ground, were average with our passing, had too many drops, and when we did catch it we put it on the ground again.”
The fourth quarter alone featured six turnovers.
The Rebels had their missed chances too. They got behind the OSU secondary early but couldn’t connect. They reached the 1 after an 83-yard drive in the first quarter, but two rush attempts by Powe, the first two of his career, didn’t cross the goal, and usually reliable kicker Joshua Shene, a native of Oklahoma City, missed two field goals.
The Rebels had the ball for over nine minutes in the first quarter but had no points after Powe failed to break the plane.
McCluster broke the plane, however, going 86 yards off right tackle in the second quarter. McCluster turned the corner and outran the defense, giving Ole Miss a 7-0 lead with 11:19 left in the half.
That score stood at the break in spite of three picks by Snead, none of which came under particular duress.
While the offense was inconsistent the defense played well, holding the Cowboys’ option in check.
OSU had only 73 yards of offense in the half, 41 on the ground, and had only as many first downs as Snead had interceptions with three.
“We knew the option was something we were going to have to stop, and we put the work in to stop it,” Nix said. “The bottom line was we could have stopped it earlier if we’d have been focused and tackled.”