"He's a great player," UT head coach Lane Kiffin noted on his post-game show. "They rested him up last week (vs. Northern Arizona) for this game, and he was everything and more today."
Ole Miss relied quite a bit on its "Wild Rebel" package, featuring McCluster - normally a flanker and running back - behind center as a direct-snap tailback. The Vols expected that, however, and prepared for it at length in practice last week.
"They've been doing that all year long," Kiffin said, adding that the Vols' problem was "We lost contain a number of times and we missed a bunch of tackles. If you miss some tackles up front versus that guy, we're not going to catch him. You saw that today."
The win lifts Ole Miss to 7-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play. The loss drops the Vols to 5-5 and 2-4.
The decisiveness of the setback was a bit surprising, given that Tennessee was coming off a 31-13 defeat of No. 21 South Carolina and a 56-28 annihilation of Memphis in its previous two games. The Vols were no match for McCluster and the Rebels on this day, however.
Looking worthy of its preseason top-10 team for one of the few times this season, Ole Miss converted on 7 of 13 third-down tries and amassed 359 rushing yards on 50 carries. Quarterback Jevan Snead completed 13 of 20 for 133 yards, giving the Rebels 492 yards of total offense.
Jonathan Crompton had to carry Tennessee's offense, completing 20 of 37 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Crompton increased his SEC-best touchdown pass total to 23 and moved his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 119. Ole Miss limited Tennessee's ground attack to 99 yards on 25 carries. Montario Hardesty gained 55 yards on 14 tries.
Ole Miss led just 21-17 when Vol defensive tackle Wes Brown picked off a Snead screen pass at the Ole Miss 43-yard line midway through the third period. The Big Orange appeared ready to exploit the break and grab the lead.
"I felt the lead coming our way right there," Kiffin said.
No wonder. The Vols had scored on all 18 previous drives this season that began in opposing territory. That streak was snapped, however. Montario Hardesty was stuffed for a two-yard loss on third-and 2 at the Rebel 35-yard line, then Crompton threw behind Denarius Moore on fourth-and-four.
Given the reprieve, the Ole Miss offense promptly drove 62 yards in 13 plays to go up 28-17. That dramatic turn of events seemed to suck the life right out of the Vols.
"It was the little things," Kiffin said. "We get to third and a long one, then we miss an assignment over there - screw up a real little thing in a situation like that - and all of a sudden it goes to fourth and four, instead of just picking up the first down. Then we miss the slant on fourth-and-four, and the game rolled all downhill from there."
The game began on an ominous note for Tennessee, with Chad Cunningham booting the opening kickoff out of bounds to give Ole Miss possession at its 40-yard line. The Rebels needed just four plays to go 60 yards and score - the big plays being an 18-yard strike from Jevan Snead to Shay Hodge, a 22-yard gain on an end-around by Jesse Grandy and a 15-yard touchdown burst by McCluster.
Tennessee tied the score on a 16-yard pass from Crompton to tight end Jeff Cottam but Ole Miss immediately answered with a seven-play, 73-yard drive capped by a 23-yard McCluster run out of the Wild Rebel formation.
The Vols pulled even on an 11-play, 70-yard drive - Crompton hitting Moore from 25 yards out for the score - but Ole Miss answered again, going 75 yards in eight plays. This time McCluster took a direct snap and sped 32 yards to the end zone for a 21-14 Ole Miss lead.
The Rebels blew a chance to extend their lead when Joshua Shene missed a 28-yard field just before halftime.
A 27-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal narrowed the gap to 21-17 early in the third quarter, then Brown made his potential game-changing interception. Ole Miss' defense held firm, however, and nothing went right for Tennessee thereafter.
Brandon Bolden scored from a yard out to extend the Rebel lead to 28-17. Following a three-and-out by Tennessee, McCluster sprinted 71 yards for a touchdown that widened the gap to 35-17. After a 46-yard field goal try by Lincoln was blocked, Ole Miss tacked on a four-yard TD run by Bolden with 2:31 to play to secure the final score.