ARLINGTON, Texas — Before having to figure out life without Dexter McCluster in the backfield, Mississippi coach Houston Nutt was going use the speedy back as much as possible.
“We knew were going to run his legs off,” Nutt said.
McCluster responded with a finale for Nutt and Ole Miss fans to remember.
In a Cotton Bowl filled with turnovers and missed opportunities by both teams, McCluster was the clear standout in his final game. He carried a career-high 32 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns, including a go-ahead 2-yard run on a direct snap with 4:03 left Saturday, and the Rebels beat Oklahoma State 21-7.
“When I’m in the zone, I’m all business. I want the ball and I’m going to do whatever I can to make something happen,” McCluster said. “I’m pretty sore. But if we had to play again, I’d get up and go. “
McCluster also had an 86-yard TD run in the second quarter after the senior had already become the first Southeastern Conference player with 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.
Ole Miss (9-4) had five turnovers in the game, but Oklahoma State had six in the fourth quarter, and seven overall.
The Rebels failed to capitalize on Kendrick Lewis’ two interceptions, but McCluster scored after a fumble to break a 7-7 tie. Patrick Trahan picked up another fumble and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown less than a minute later, then intercepted a deflected fourth-down pass by Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson on the next drive.
“It’s hard to overcome giving one away,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. “At some point we’ve got to make some plays. We’ve got to step up. I told the team the same thing.”
The Cowboys (9-4), who like Ole Miss were in the preseason AP Top 10, missed a chance for their first 10-win season since 1988 when Gundy was their starting quarterback. Nutt, also a former Oklahoma State quarterback, was then one of their coaches.
Nutt has led the Rebels to consecutive 9-4 seasons, both capped by victories in the Cotton Bowl, this one played in Cowboys Stadium after the 73rd game at the game’s namesake stadium last year. Ole Miss had lost all eight of its SEC games in 2007 before Nutt replaced the fired Ed Orgeron.
Now Nutt and the Rebels have to move on without McCluster, whose 3,921 career all-purpose yards are second in school history behind Deuce McAllister’s 4,889.
“I hate to think about it,” Nutt said. “Dexter said his last prayer for us this morning. I’m telling you, it was emotional.”
McCluster’s 86-yard TD run in the second quarter came on a handoff from freshman quarterback Nathan Stanley. McCluster went to the right and through a gap, running untouched for the second-longest run in the history of the Cotton Bowl. Just like his coach told him during the preceding timeout.
“Coach Nutt said if it gets blocked right I’m going to score. … Everybody blocked their man. After that it was nothing but speed, and speed kills,” said McCluster, who ran for 1,003 yards his last six games after he was moved from a primary receiver to starting running back.
“Where he’s dangerous is where he puts up in there, you stuff it, he jumps outside,” Gundy said. “After the game, mentioned to him that I really enjoyed watching him play because I appreciate guys that are tough football players. … He’s a tough football player.”
The long TD came on Ole Miss’ first offensive play after Jevan Snead threw an interception and was hit so hard on a blindside block while pursuing the defender with the ball that his helmet got knocked off.
Snead, a junior who has not declared if he will return for his senior season or go to the NFL early, returned to the game and finished 13 of 23 for 168 yards. His three interceptions gave him 20 for the season.
Robinson was 13 of 27 for 118 yards with four interceptions in his last game.
Oklahoma State tied the game at 7-7 midway through the third quarter when running back Keith Toston took a direct snap on third-and-goal from the 1. He made a step toward the line, then stopped and threw a jump pass to Wilson Youman for a touchdown.
Ole Miss made it to the 3 after Lewis’ first interception. But after a penalty, two sacks of Snead and an incomplete pass, Joshua Shene was wide left on a 38-yard field goal try.
Shene, who missed only three kicks in the regular season, hit the left upright on a 41-yard attempt in the third quarter after a 63-yard punt return by Marshay Green set the Rebels up at the 13.
At the Rebels 19 after the second miss, Robinson thought he had a free play when there was no whistle despite an Ole Miss defender already over the line after a Cowboys lineman might have moved before the snap. But there was no flag, and Lewis picked it off in the end zone with 8:44 left.
“It definitely kind of took something out of us,” Robinson said.
On third-and-goal from just outside the 1 in the first quarter, Ole Miss’ 330-pound defensive tackle Jerrell Powe lined up at fullback like he had done several times this season. Powe got his first carry, but was stuffed just short by linebacker Donald Booker. The Rebels lined up and tried again with the same result, with Booker stopping Powe.
“I can honestly say I’ve never tackled anybody that heavy,” Booker said.
Powe got payback in the third quarter when Oklahoma State tried to score on fourth-and-goal from the 1. Powe wrapped up Toston’s legs behind the line before Lewis hit him high to stop him short.
“I find it very ironic,” Nutt said. “I thought for sure (Powe) could get six inches. I’ve been teasing him about it already.”
And lamenting what things will be like without McCluster.