OXFORD – Cancel that missing persons bulletin on Dexter McCluster. He has been found.
The Ole Miss Rebels’ multi-purpose back was multi-useful with more than 100 yards both rushing and receiving. Quarterback Jevan Snead showed up big too, and the Rebels delivered Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt an emotional win Saturday, 30-17, against Arkansas, the school he led for 10 seasons.
“It’s a big win for coach Nutt and the staff that was at Arkansas. They went through a lot, and we wanted to win it for them,” McCluster said. “It’s a big win for our team. It shows that we’re still fighting, and we’re still here.”
A Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd of 60,622, the stadium’s 10th-largest, saw McCluster and Snead click early, leading the Rebels (5-2, 2-2 SEC) to 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Ole Miss amassed 553 total yards but also left points on the table, settling for field goals twice when they had penetrated the 5-yard line and turning the ball over three times, compared to no turnovers for the Razorbacks (3-4, 1-4 SEC).
There will be more Arkansas connections next week when Ole Miss goes back on the road at Auburn to face the Tigers’ under new head coach Gene Chizik and his offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn – whom Nutt hired with the Razorbacks.
Saturday, the Rebels were unable to finish the Hogs early, but Arkansas was unable to take advantage. Ole Miss kept pressure on strong-armed quarterback Ryan Mallett, the SEC’s total offense leader, sacking him four times and pressuring him many others.
Mallett did not throw an interception but completed just 12-of-34 attempts for 254 yards and one touchdown, which was the result of a tipped ball when two Ole Miss defensive backs were covering his intended receiver, Greg Childs. Carlton Salters grabbed the ball inside the 10 and scored easily.
That made it a 24-17 game with 5 minutes, 33 seconds left in the third quarter.
Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix turned up the heat early in the second half after watching Mallett lead the Hogs 80 yards in less than 2 minutes late in the first half. A 3-yard run by Knile Davis cut the Ole Miss lead to 17-7 at halftime.
“We learned from that that if we didn’t get more pressure it would be a long day for us. We couldn’t let him set his feet, or he would pick us a part,” Nix said
Snead, meanwhile, did set his feet. He got good protection and completed 22-of-33 attempts for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw two interceptions.
“Other than one decision, Jevan was perfect,” Nutt said.
That decision was a short-armed throw to Shay Hodge on third-and-6 from the Ole Miss 42 on the Rebels’ first third-quarter possession.
It was Snead’s second read, and it was tipped and picked by Arkansas cornerback Andru Stewart. The Razorbacks got a 44-yard field goal from Alex Tejada out of the possession, but the Rebels responded in two plays when Snead hit McCluster on a screen pass. McCluster broke contact early and accelerated through a hole downfield to complete the 64-yard play for a 24-10 Ole Miss lead just before Mallett’s long bomb.
Nutt anticipated getting the ball to McCluster more, perhaps not as many times as the almost 30 touches he had on the day. McCluster, at tailback, rushed 22 times for 123 yards. He caught seven passes for 137 yards and the touchdown.
Nutt said he resisted using McCluster out of the backfield more earlier this season, because he thought the offense would be further along.
“I thought we’d be fine and would use Dexter on screens and reverses and those things,” he said.
‘I’ve been ready’
Nutt still played close to the vest with McCluster in last week’s 48-13 win over UAB but went to his player during the week and took off the chains.
“After the game last week coach Nutt came to me and said, ‘We’re getting ready to take off. I hope you’re ready for it.’ I said, ‘I’ve been ready.’ I’ve been patient and ready to go, and he let me loose today.”
McCluster was big on both of the Rebels’ first touchdown drives that ended with touchdowns on a 1-yard run by Snead and a 25-yard pass from Snead to Shay Hodge on a fade route. McCluster finished with 73 rushing yards in the first quarter.
Nutt was coy with how McCluster might be used going forward and question whether he can withstand the physical beating of the touches he had against the Razorbacks. McCluster blew out a shoe in the first half and changed to bigger thigh pads at halftime.
“I’d rather not say,” Nutt said, “but he’s a big-time weapon wherever, and he was awesome today.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or email@example.com
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal