That's right. In their previous 12 tries against the Volunteers of Rocky Top, the Rebels had not once claimed victory, the last coming in Knoxville in 1983. But even more, bowl eligibility and a chance to send a former coach home with a bitter taste in his mouth was on the line.
To call this one important would be a gross understatement. In reality, for Ole Miss' 2009 campaign to not be considered a massive letdown, they had to top Tennessee. The Rebels were hanging in limbo. If ever a win were needed, this was it.
Hello, Dexter McCluster.
"I know the Lord took care of me. I was born with some good vision and some quick feet," McCluster said of his record-breaking day. "We have a lot to play for this season. It's just a blessing for me to get that many catches and that many yards."
It may be one man's opinion, but no individual performance in recent memory has been so impressive in this writer's eyes.
Let's review. Touching the ball 29 times in a lopsided 42-17 win for Ole Miss, the quick-shifting McCluster totaled school records in rushing (282) and all-purpose yards (324). Remarkably, it was the most yards Tennessee has surrendered on the ground to a single player in 113 years of its football existence.
Additionally, his four rushing touchdowns tie four others for the second-most in Ole Miss history, with Saturday marking the first time it's happened since 1990.
And against the fifth-best defense in the SEC, no less.
"I was in the zone from the jump," said McCluster. "From the first play of the game, I was in the zone and wanted to stay in that zone for the entire game. The offensive line did a great job."
Record Breaker, History Maker:
Not to belabor the point, but when digging a little deeper into the numbers by McCluster against Tennessee, you realize just how special this day indeed was.
After five games, the question of McCluster's involvement in the offense was a hot topic amongst the Ole Miss faithful. At the time, he had only logged 50 touches (37 rushing, 13 receiving) with opposing defenses keying in on the most dangerous offensive weapon the Rebels have to offer.
However, with an offense proven dormant for much of the year, Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt and staff were determined to get McCluster involved. The team's scoring chances would ride on the generously listed 168-pound playing shoulders of Run DMC.
Five games later, not only has he become the team's primary running back, but you'll also find the Largo, Fla. native lined up as the quarterback in the Wild Rebel and at his natural position at wideout. Suffice to say, it's all but guaranteed Dex is getting over 20 touches per game.
"That ranks way up there in the best individual performances I have ever seen. Unbelievable," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said of McCluster's day. "I tell you, this guy 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."
The numbers don't lie. His 282 yards was the 11th-best rushing performance in SEC history and the most in the league since Darren McFadden had 321 in 2007. It was also the third time in four games McCluster has topped 100 yards rushing and 200 all-purpose yards.
"I've known he was a special player from the first day I met him," junior quarterback Jevan Snead said. "He had one of those games where he couldn't be stopped and I'm extremely happy for him. He's the kind of guy you want to see do well because he's an extraordinary person as well as an incredible football player. Watching him from behind and the way he can make people miss is amazing. I have the best seat in the house."
It's an old adage, but the truly great backs get better as a game wears on and fatigue sets in. Showing he ranks amongst the many Rebel greats, McCluster did that very thing Saturday.
In an unforgettable performance, the 5-foot-8 speedster scored touchdowns on runs of 15, 23 and 32 yards in the first three quarters. No doubt, each run was memorable, but failed in comparison to what we saw on the first play from scrimmage in the final frame.
On a simple dive play, McCluster ran into the back of right guard John Jerry. However, not to be held down, he bounced off and busted toward a clearing to his left. And despite an array of Tennessee defenders in his tracks, McCluster shimmied and shook his way 71 yards for an electrifying touchdown and a 35-17 lead.
"Once he started touching it, you can put together a highlight reel on him on about five plays he made," Volunteer head coach Lane Kiffin said of McCluster. "Guys had angles on him, but never even touched him. He was playing at another level today.
"I've never seen a player that plays tailback and does the Wildcat stuff that he does. He can go out and run receiver routes. There are some guys like Reggie (Bush) and there are some other guys that have gone out there and run receiver routes. But he's a really unique talent. I watched him run up and down and I can't tell you how many times I looked at Coach (Ed) Orgeron and said ‘go get us one of those.'"
Sadly, it's far too late in the season for McCluster to throw his hat into the ring of Heisman Trophy consideration. But if there were ever a debate of who the best pound-for-pound player in the country was before Saturday, it can end now.
Let outside pundits make a case for the Tim Tebows of the world. It's hard to argue the worth of the most explosive player in college football.
Somewhat lost amidst the fireworks display of McCluster was the play of an inspired Ole Miss defense.
In previous games against Auburn and Northern Arizona, Tyrone Nix's bunch surrendered 401 and 354 yards of total offense respectively. Big plays were a glaring problem as well, as the unit allowed at least five plus-20 yard gainers combined in the contests.
However, a Tennessee offense led by the third-ranked passing attack at 216.4 ypg was held to only 275 yards total in the win. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton completed just 20-of-37 attempts for 176 yards and two touchdowns, while the Volunteer ground game logged 99 yards.
"Their offense has been hot lately, but we have so much confidence on our scheme and in each other," junior defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. "We know the guy next to us is going to do his job and we play as a unit."
Running back Montario Hardesty, who entered the game averaging 100.1 ypg, was limited to a mere 71 on 14 carries. Better yet, Hardesty was kept out of the end zone despite having scored eight touchdowns on the year.
"Our biggest goal was to stop Hardesty," said Lockett. "We studied him hard. He's a spinner, but we never gave him an opportunity to spin out of anything. We tackled real well today. We got after him and got him on the ground."
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