Every player and every coach knew what was facing them when the red-hot Tennessee Vols came to Vaught-Hemingway seeking to become bowl eligible.
Essentially, they needed their first complete game showing since defeating Arkansas several weeks ago on the same turf.
Plan properly and prepare properly and you shall receive. . .
Execute and you shall be bountiful. . .
Want it badly enough and you shall get it. . .
Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix's crew might get a little overshadowed by the record-setting individual performance of Rebel TB Dexter McCluster and the rest of the Rebel offense, but Nix and company spun their own masterpiece as well.
The Landsharks limited UT to 275 total yards of offense and didn't allow but 99 yards rushing, with Montario Hardesty only getting 55 yards on the day.
"Our kids responded. It's been a blessing watching them mature and handle adversity this week," said Nix, referring to losing DE Greg Hardy for the year due to a wrist injury, S Fon Ingram to a knee injury for the UT game, and seeing both DE Kentrell Lockett and OLB Patrick Trahan playing after being in the hospital Friday night. "I can't say how proud I am of how hard our kids played and competed. They played their hearts out.
"We've got some guys banged up and the next guy had to step up. That's what they did."
Nix said he did not panic Friday night when told of Lockett running a 103 degree fever and Trahan having a mysterious foot/ankle injury.
"I knew we had prepared well all week. You never want to see guys like that miss a rep, but I knew the guys who were able to go would pull a little closer, become a little tighter and play a little harder," Tyrone stated. "We knew we could do it regardless of who we put on the field. They all had that look in their eyes that they were not going to be the weak link."
The biggest defensive uprising came with the Rebs up 21-17 in the third quarter and UT taking over in Ole Miss territory after an interception.
Four-and-out for the Vols. . .
"To go out there in a sudden change situation is a challenge because the other defense has made a play and the opposing offense is probably pumped up," he explained. "To go out there and stop them at that time was a big boost to our whole team.
"If you are going to be considered a great, defense, that is what you have to do - rise to the occasion and do things like that. You have to make something happen - stop them, create a turnover or, at the very least, hold them to a field goal. We had a terrific series there."
That series gave the Rebel D the shot in the arm they needed to finish what they had started - UT didn't scratch after that.
"This was definitely one of our better defensive efforts, comparable to our game against Alabama. That's what it took today and what it will continue to take the remainder of the year to finish this thing off like we want to," noted Nix.
Nix knew the damage Hardesty could inflict on a defense if he was not bottled up, but his guys got the job done.
"We wanted to get them one-dimensional and we were able to do that by stopping him. We knew if we stopped the run we would have a chance, even though their quarterback has been playing better," Tyrone explained. "When we were able to take the run game away, we were able to do some other things that helped control their passing game as well."
The Reb defensive front seven produced several minus-yardage plays that left Tennessee gasping for air with third-and-long situations.
"We were able to collapse their OL sometimes and penetrate. Our front was very effective today in putting their offense in bad situations due to some big minus-yardage plays," Nix allowed. "I thought Jerrell Powe penetrated the line of scrimmage a lot, but so did the others up there. It was just a good overall effort by all 11, but it started with the front seven. I also thought Jonathan Cornell was very active against Tennessee. He had double-digit tackles and made a couple of big plays when we needed them."
It would probably be a stretch to call the Rebs' defensive performance "dominant," but it was pretty close considering the opponent and the situation.
On offense, McCluster will deservedly get the headlines and the accolades. School records don't grow on trees. . .
. . . but as potent and unbelievable as McCluster was against the Vols, it was definitely an 11-man offensive effort, replete with QB Jevan Snead managing his best game of the year, a re-tooled offensive line leading the way to 492 total yards of offense and a coaching staff that put in new formations and plays that kept the 3rd-ranked defense in the SEC completely baffled and on its heels.
"We wanted to put them on their heels. We knew we could not stay in traditional formations against this defense. We had to keep throwing different personnel groupings at them and calling different formations to throw them off balance," Austin explained. "We threw a lot of different looks at them. We even ran the option and some inside zone read option as well. We just had to do some things a little more unconventional against a defense that was playing extremely well."
The Rebels also went back to a formation - the Wild Rebel - that had been somewhat shelved the past few weeks.
"We felt we could have some success with the Wild Rebel against the defense they prefer to run. We ran it more to the left against them and it was successful," said Austin.
Austin was very pleased with the play of Snead. The junior signal-caller did not have staggering numbers, but he had one of his best games as a Rebel in managing the action and controlling the flow of the game.
"Jevan was very much under control all day. He made a lot of nice reads, didn't try to force anything and was very accurate all day," Austin said. "I will give you an example. We had a third-and-four midway through the fourth quarter when we needed to eat clock. We called a power pass which goes to the fullback about 90% of the time. Tennessee jumped the fullback route and Jevan made a great read and throw to Shay (Hodge) to move the sticks. He didn't try to cram that throw into the fullback and hope for the best. He followed his progressions and found what was open. He did stuff like that all day."
Snead hurt his ankle just before halftime and the coaches were contemplating a change, but Jevan was having none of that.
"He kept telling me he was OK. He wanted to play. I wanted to make sure he could roll out and waggle and those things. He's a tough kid. He told me he could do everything we had in the gameplan and that was important. We didn't want to have to throw some things out to keep him in there - we needed all our gameplan offense against UT," Kent noted.
The Rebels were also the beneficiaries of a new offensive line that moved RT John Jerry to right guard and inserted freshman Bobby Massie into the starting lineup at right tackle.
"We felt the strength of their defense was their interior line and we felt like we needed to move John inside now that Bobby got his feet wet last week," Austin noted. "We felt John could keep him under control and keep him assignment sound. We needed that beef in there and it worked.
"Bobby is going to be an outstanding player. He's got all the tools - he's big, strong and he can bend. He's learning from John too, which is helping him mature and develop."
Saving the best for last, a review of the offensive performance would be foolish without highlighting McCluster and his 282 yards rushing and 324 total yards of offense.
"That ranks way up there in the best individual performances I have ever seen. Unbelievable," said Kent. "This guy - I tell you - is one of the most special people and football players I have ever had the honor to be around. It's not just because of his performance, it's because his performance is indicative of the quality individual Dexter is. He's a leader. He talked to the team last night. He's so unselfish.
"His versatility is incredible. Dexter runs routes in the passing game most backs can't run and he's our best wideout at adjusting his routes based on the coverage we are seeing. He's not only an outstanding tailback, he's an incredible receiver and his football IQ is through the roof."
A complete game effort was needed.
A complete game performance was delivered.
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