OXFORD – What Dexter McCluster couldn’t do with his feet he did with his arm, but he still had to compress an eternity into 1 second to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Ole Miss survived a wild finish that would rival Billy Cannon’s punt return 50 yards ago, securing a 25-23 win Saturday only after No. 10 LSU completed a hail mary pass to the 5 but couldn’t get off one more play because the 1 remaining second expired before the Tigers could snap the ball.
“Oh, that 1 second felt like an eternity,” said McCluster, whose 27-yard touchdown pass to Shay Hodge proved to be the game-winner, much to the delight of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd of 61,752. “I thought the clock should have wound down anyway. I don’t know where that 1 second came from.”
Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3 SEC) earned its first win over LSU in Oxford since 1998, its first back-to-back wins in the series since winning three straight from 1997-1999.
The spoils of victory are the inside track to the Capital One Bowl for Ole Miss. Bowl officials spoke favorably of the Rebels but stopped short of saying they will earn the invitation if they defeat Mississippi State in Starkville on Saturday.
Ole Miss outgained LSU 426-290, the Tigers getting much of that late in the game in their hurry-up offense.
McCluster, a week after his 282-yard rushing performance against Tennessee, ran for 148 yards on 24 carries but did not score a rushing touchdown.
He ran so much, however, that Hodge was wide open when McCluster took a handoff from quarterback Jevan Snead and ran right. LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson came running up hard.
“I could have drop-kicked it to him,” McCluster said.
A simple pass was good enough for Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
“When you’re running counters, running counters … In their mind they have to stop No. 22,” Nutt said.
It was a play the Rebels had worked on for weeks before putting it in action. It was the first pass attempt of the season for McCluster, and the first completion of his career. He gained fame as the Wild Rebel last year but was 0-for-5 passing with two interceptions.
“We usually work on our gadget plays two, three or four weeks We talked about it at halftime and what scenario would have to present itself to call that play. Houston did a good job of calling it,” offensive coordinator Kent Austin said.
The touchdown put Ole Miss ahead 22-17 with 13 minutes, 33 seconds left. The Rebels’ went eight points up on Joshua Shene’s 23-yard field goal with 3:42 left, capping a 15-play, 60-yard drive that consumed 8:26 off the clock. Shene also hit kicks of 45, 25 and 33 yards, but his one blocked field goal was returned for an LSU touchdown in the first quarter.
LSU drew six points closer at the end when Jordan Jefferson passed 25 yards to freshman Rueben Randle, capping a 10-play, 66-yard drive that took 2:15.
Trying to tie the game on the two-point conversion, the Tigers twice tried fade routes to the end zone corner to 6-foot-5 Terrance Toliver. The first resulted in pass interference against Cassius Vaughn; the second was incomplete.
The Tigers weren’t finished.
They recovered the ensuing on-side kick to set up the late-game heroics. McCluster was in the middle of the action once again. He was on the front line of the receiving unit and backed away from the football.
Nutt said his players are taught to let the second line grab an on-side kick if it’s “too hot.”
“It was coming so fast I couldn’t decide to dive on it or let it go. It was a lose-lose situation,” McCluster said.
It was nearly a losing situation for Ole Miss. The Tigers took over at their 42 with 1:16 on the clock and two timeouts. Having already hit a 50-yard field goal, they reached the Ole Miss 32, but were pushed back on a sack by end Emmanuel Stephens and a tackle for loss on a screen pass by linebacker Patrick Trahan.
It was fourth-and-26 from the Ole Miss 48 when LSU (8-3, 4-3) used its final timeout with 9 seconds on the clock.
“The management at the back of the game was an issue,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think the blame without question is when my quarterback needs to throw it away, and we’re calling a timeout to save as much clock time as we can, but we were late (getting the timeout call) to the field.”
It was unclear earlier in the week if Jefferson, who missed last week’s game with a sprained ankle, would play, but he completed 19-or-37 passes for 250 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
After the hail mary completion to Toliver, he said, “There was a lot of confusion on the sideline. Nobody knew what to do.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal