Breaking it Down: Playing Keep-Away

Over the course of this week, the Ole Miss Spirit will break down the key matchups of the 73rd AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic. Tuesday's edition features the Ole Miss running game against the Texas Tech front seven. Read about it inside.

Head Coach Houston Nutt has always been known as a connoisseur of sorts when designing a successful running game.

That reputation remains prevalent in Oxford, where the Rebels rank third in the Southeastern Conference for rushing yards per game.

With a backfield stable of Cordera Eason, Dexter McCluster, Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, Nutt has developed a four-headed monster that can churn out yards in bunches and also wear down opposing defenses.

That depth will be tested Friday, as Ole Miss faces a stiff test in Texas Tech.

"Texas Tech has a prolific offense and an underrated defense," Nutt said. "We understand the type of opponent they are, but we are also here to win. We have played other great teams and have our share of excellent wins. We want to prove we belong. This is an important game, a big game."

For the Rebels to claim victory in the last Cotton Bowl in Cotton Bowl Stadium, they must win the battle of possession and dictate tempo by grinding out tough yardage on the ground.

Ole Miss holds a strong advantage over Tech, as Mike Leach's squad is seventh in the Big 12 against the run. Led by junior defensive end Brandon Williams, who finished sixth in the Big 12 for tackles for loss (12.5) and forced fumbles (3), the unit has surrendered an average of 133.5 yards per outing.

Sophomore Brian Duncan is tops on the team with 89 tackles, including 59 solos and 30 assisted.

"Their defense is good. They are 11-1 and it's not just because of their offense," said offensive coordinator Kent Austin. "Statistics are all relative. The wins and losses are what count. They play in a league that pushes the ball aggressively and is offense-orientated."

However, to beat Texas Tech, it's not as simple as run, run, run. The Red Raiders will surely score, but the ability to limit that scoring through a controlled offense is essential.

Eason led all Ole Miss rushers for yards gained this season, with 644 yards on 137 carries. While the senior understands the task at hand, he believes a high-scoring affair appears to be in order.

"Texas Tech is going to score regardless," Eason explained. "We have to keep our defense off the field as much as possible and control the clock as much as we can. We're going to do our best not to make it a shootout."

Moved to tailback in the season's latter stages, all-purpose gem Dexter McCluster has become a reliable force in the Rebel backfield. The junior has been the main operator of the Wild-Rebel, tallying 95 carries for 558 yards.

"Dexter is small, but his heart is bigger than a stadium. He does it all," said Nutt. "We let him operate the Wild Rebel because of his ball skills and all he can do with the ball. He's a big play guy for us. "

As we've noted previously, a short/intermediate passing game will have to be utilized if the Rebels are to be efficient in their time management efforts.

But for such an attack to be effective, the Red Raider defense must be aware of the Rebels threat to run. Such attention provides play-action capabilities, as well as other opportunities downfield.

"We have always emphasized being very physical running north and south in every game plan," said Nutt. "We as a staff have always tried to be physical and really run downhill. Then you can go play action and try to mix up formations. Those things will help your running game."

While Ole Miss sits fourth in the conference in passing offense, the Rebels remain a run-oriented football team. Establishing the run early in games is desired by the offensive staff and that will certainly not change against Tech.

"We feel we've got a great challenge, regardless of our style of play. We have to control the football and score, we understand that," Austin said. "We feel they are going to play well and will force us to execute."

Advantage: The high-octane offense of Texas Tech has been discussed ad nauseam, but we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the unit's unparalleled ability to light up the scoreboard in unrelenting fashion.

With that in mind, slowing that unit's rhythm is critical for Ole Miss in keeping pace and the running game can play a major part. By keeping Graham Harrell and company on the sideline through lengthy but successful drives, the Rebels can stay ahead of the curve.

Give Ole Miss the edge in this matchup.

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