Notebook: New Beginnings

In what can easily be deemed as the most complete game of the 2009 season so far, Ole Miss used a winning combination of inspired defense and explosive offense to run away from Arkansas 30-13 Saturday.

While a Tyrone Nix led defense shined against a powerful Arkansas offensive machine, it was the play of Ole Miss offensively that was the true story of the day. The unit's 553 yards of total offense marked the third 500-yard performance of the year for Ole Miss, and was the most by a Rebel offense since posting 567 against Wyoming in 2004.

And considering Ole Miss had entered the game still unproven against a formidable conference opponent, the high-scoring display by the team couldn't have come at a better time. The Rebels are in a crucial two-game stretch with a trip to Auburn up next, but are now in much better position for their final five contests with an overall record of 5-2 (2-2 SEC).

Could another fateful run to conclude the season be upon us? If so, Saturday was an awfully promising start.

"This is the critical point of the year. Everybody needed a win this weekend. You're past the midway point now. You're heading home. Everybody wants to get to six wins," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "You're working and fighting to get to Atlanta. Then the bowls and all those things that come into play now. The next game is the biggest game now, and that's Auburn."

The Game-Changer:

Though entering the game with meager averages in both rushing (27.3 yards per game) and receiving (33 ypg), all-purpose gem Dexter McCluster broke out against Arkansas Saturday, as the senior accounted for 260 yards of total offense in the win.

For the game, McCluster logged 30 touches, 137 yards receiving and 123 rushing with a touchdown. The Largo, Fla. native also carried 22 times as the Rebels' primary running back, leading to the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career.

"I'm just happy I got the opportunity to show what I can do," McCluster said. "I was able to get in my zone today. I knew going into the game I would be getting the ball a lot, but the coaches prepared me for it all week. It felt like I was back in high school. It feels good to get the ball in my hands."

For the better part of the team's previous six games McCluster, who became the first Rebel in the modern era to top the 100-yard mark in both rushing and receiving, struggled to find production with extra attention paid to the senior by opposing defenses.

Last year, McCluster was one of only two players to rank top-10 in the SEC in rushing yards, receiving yards, receptions and all-purpose yards. However, prior to Saturday, McCluster had mustered only 390 total yards, with two touchdowns.

"Dexter was the key (Saturday)," Nutt said. "You line him up seven yards in the backfield and they have to defend that. Now our passing game takes off. That's the game we wanted to play. He's a true weapon wherever he lines up on the field. It helps when the quarterback can turn and hand the ball to him and he can stretch the field. He's a difference maker."

Suddenly Snead:

Cue the proverbial broken record, but before logging his first career 300-yard passing game Saturday, junior quarterback Jevan Snead had struggled mightily in a highly-anticipated season for the former Heisman Trophy sleeper.

However, against the Razorbacks, Snead completed 22-of-33 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Though he also totaled two interceptions in the effort, the good far outweighed the bad for the Stephenville, Texas native, as Snead found eight different receivers in his 11th multiple touchdown performance over the last 13 games.

"Jevan, besides one decision today, I thought was perfect," said Nutt. "He threw the ball away today. He was very, very accurate. He's a winner. Not one quarterback I know wants to throw interceptions. It hurts him when it happens. But he's a competitor. He's a winner."

Prior to his much-improved showing, Snead had completed just under 50 percent of his passes (80-of-161), with 12 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions on the year. His 1,108 passing yards ranked seventh in the conference, as the junior had yet to surpass 250 yards through the air all season.

My, how quickly perceptions can change.

"It felt great to continue what we started last week and to do it against an SEC opponent," he said. "I'm so thankful for my teammates and for our coaching staff. They all deserved this one. We've had our struggles on offense this year, but we stuck together, believed in each other and worked our way out of it."

That Much More:

When Nutt walked off the field following a 23-21 win over these same Razorbacks a year ago, the weight of 10 years spent in Fayetteville loomed large.

But while he tried to downplay the significance in Round Two, a postgame celebration not seen since the 73rd Annual Cotton Bowl Classic proved different. To Nutt, this game was again personal. And within the locker room, a resounding rally cry to get a win for the second-year head coach rang loud and clear.

"This was a big game. We went out and got this win for Coach Nutt, basically," senior cornerback Marshay Green said. "We know the history that he has with Arkansas. This was an emotional game for him. But we had practiced hard all week and were focused. This was for him."

"The next game's always the biggest game, but our players knew how we feel," Nutt added. "They knew how important it was for us with so many carryovers (from Arkansas) on our staff. There are a lot of guys who walked those halls and coached on that sideline. So it's hard for our players not to feel that."

After notching his second win against his former team in as many tries, Nutt was met by a still crowded stadium declaring appreciation for only the fifth coach to guide Ole Miss to a bowl in his first season.

As lines of Arkansas-clad fans emptied their respective seats late in the fourth quarter, cheers of "Houston Nutt," "Houston Nutt" echoed in the burrows of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

And though we as journalists try and push sentiment aside for the sake of neutrality, Saturday's postgame demonstration by the Rebel faithful was a truly stirring sight.

"Our fans were truly the 12th man today. They were outstanding," said Nutt. "I really appreciate them. They played every play with us. Our fans are tremendous. They're outstanding and they played a tremendous role."


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