By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Dexter McCluster kept late hours Saturday night, and it wasn't because he was celebrating.
The Ole Miss wide receiver – the point man in the Wild Rebel formation – said he couldn’t sleep after his fumble at the Vanderbilt 2-yard line with less than 3 minutes to play, one of six turnovers that cost the Rebels in a 23-17 loss to Vanderbilt.
“My dad left about 2 in the morning to go back to Florida. I had been up with him,” said McCluster, a Central Florida native who will play in the “Swamp” for the first time when the Rebels take on the fourth-ranked Gators Saturday. “I stayed up till about 5 thinking about it.”
McCluster said he thought he was down before the ball was stripped by Vanderbilt linebacker Chris Marve, redshirt freshman, but replay officials upheld the call on the field.
The fumble overshadowed a game in which McCluster set a career-high with 132 receiving yards and matched a career high with seven receptions.
Just run baby
– McCluster's fumble was the second time the Rebels reached the Vanderbilt 2 or closer and failed to score.
Ole Miss had a fourth-and-goal from inside the Commodores' 1 in the third quarter, but tailback Cordera Eason dived for the end zone and came up short.
The blocking was executed, and the leap was unnecessary.
“He had it in his mind that he was going to try to jump, and he didn't have to jump,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “The hole was there.”
Nutt said he would always like to see his line become more physical, but blocking was not an issue in the goal-to-go plays.
“After watching film, it was a matter of protecting the ball,” guard Maurice Miller said. “Then on the other, I thought, 'Man, you could have just toted it on in.'”
Ole Miss ran for 201 yards on the night, and Eason had a game-high 88 yards on 12 carries, an average gain of 7.3 yards.
– After no turnovers in the opener against Memphis, the Rebels have turned the ball over 11 times in three games.
Nutt said he won't change his play-calling but trusts that he can help his players improve.
“Protection goes back to taking responsibility of the ball, three pressure points and an eagle claw to the rib cage. You've got to lock it up,” Nutt said. “To say we're going to cut here or cut there, we're not going to do that. We've got to get the ball out to our people who make plays.”
McCluster has had two turnovers from the Wild Rebel formation. He threw an interception at Wake Forest in Week 2.
Ole Miss is minus-6 in turnover margin, 10th in the SEC, 109th in the nation.
Strong on the DL
– As the defensive line has gotten stronger, the Rebels have improved their run defense. The Rebels are eighth in the SEC and 49th in the nation against the run with 118.5 yards a game allowed.
End Greg Hardy played about 15 plays in his return from foot surgery, but that was long enough to come up with a sack.
Tackle Peria Jerry is second in the SEC in tackles for loss at 1.5 per game, while tackle Ted Laurent is sixth at 1.12.
“Those are NFL guys I'm playing behind,” linebacker Jonathan Cornell said. “They're pretty phenomenal. Having them back gives me a lot more confidence.”
Ole Miss shaved 23 yards off Vanderbilt’s rushing average. The Commodores, after gaining 131 in Oxford, are averaging 202 yards a game, third in the SEC.