Big 12: Dexter McCluster
How the game was won: Ole Miss took advantage of six Oklahoma State turnovers on consecutive fourth-quarter possessions to blow the game open. The Rebels got the ball back via interceptions by free safety Kendrick Lewis on consecutive drives, followed by back-to-back fumble recoveries and then interceptions by Patrick Trahan and Fon Ingram during a run in which the Rebels scored the game’s final 14 points.
It’s notable: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt becomes the first coach to win back-to-back Cotton Bowls since Lou Holtz at Notre Dame in 1993 and 1994.
Turning point: With about 9 minutes remaining in a tie game, OSU had the ball on the Ole Miss 19-yard line and appeared poised to claim the lead. Ole Miss defensive tackle Jerrell Powe looked to have obviously jumped offsides on a snap as he charged past OSU center Andrew Lewis before the snap was completed. Feeling that he had a free play, Robinson threw to the end zone, where he was intercepted by Lewis in the end zone. The Cowboys unraveled from that point in the game.
Player of the game: Oklahoma State’s defense was gearing to stop Ole Miss running back Dexter McCluster. And it still didn’t matter. McCluster rushed for 185 yards on 34 carries, including touchdown runs of 86 and 2 yards to account for both of the Rebel’s offensive touchdowns. He also produced five receptions for 45 yards, becoming the first player in Southeastern Conference history to account for 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season.
Unsung hero: Patrick Trahan capped the victory with two pivotal fourth-quarter plays. He recovered a fumble by OSU wide receiver Hubert Anyiam and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to give the Rebels a 21-7 lead. He then provided an interception on OSU’s next possession to ice the victory.
Stat of the game: The two teams combined for 12 turnovers, but it didn't top the Cotton Bowl record of 13 that was set when Alabama claimed a 29-21 victory over Texas A&M on Jan. 1, 1942.
What it means: Oklahoma State failed to tie a school record with a 10th victory. The Cowboys’ late collapse in the final two games was a disappointment, but OSU overachieved considering their injury and suspension losses over the course of the season. The Cowboys lose key players like Robinson, Russell Okung, Keith Toston, Perrish Cox and starting linebackers Andre Sexton, Donald Booker and Patrick Lavin next season. But they will try to rebuild around a retooled offense that will should be centered around running back Kendall Hunter, who looked to regain his form Saturday after struggling with injuries all season.
Ole Miss didn’t achieve its preseason goal of contending for an SEC championship, but the Rebels claimed back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1959 and 1960. And they likely will have Jevan Snead back for another season as well.
WHO TO WATCH: Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State
Hunter led the Big 12 in rushing last season, but has struggled with a foot injury in 2009, missing five games and never really recovering the form that enabled him to gain 1,555 yards last season. Keith Toston took over as Oklahoma State’s featured running threat and raced for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the Cowboys have missed a breakaway element in their running game all season. Hunter returned to action late in the regular season, but has looked reluctant to plant and cut the way he did last season. But after his Cotton Bowl practices, he appears to be finally rounding into form. His return against Mississippi should boost the productivity of the Cowboys’ offense and perhaps give him a jump-start for the 2010 season.
WHAT TO WATCH: Can the Cowboys protect Zac Robinson from theRebels’ lethal pass rush?
Oklahoma State’s offensive line has struggled protecting Robinson at times this season, ranking only ninth in the Big 12 in fewest sacks allowed. Rebels’ defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix has developed a productive defense that led the Southeastern Conference and had five different players with at least five sacks during the season, keyed by Marcus Tillman and Emmanuel Stephens with 5.5 sacks apiece. The biggest reason the Rebels have been successful with their pass rush is because their secondary has held up well this season. And with OSU consensus All-American tackle Russell Okung’s status iffy with a tweaked knee, it could be more difficult for the Cowboys to withstand the Rebels’ pressure. OSU must do a better job of protecting their quarterback than late in the season when Robinson’s performance dipped as he was hampered with injuries.
WHY WATCH: The coaching matchup between two former OSU quarterbacks
The association between Mississippi coach Houston Nutt and OSU coach Mike Gundy goes back a long way. Nutt was an OSU quarterback in 1979-80 and Gundy played at the position for the Cowboys from 1986 to 1989. During Gundy’s playing stint, Nutt served as the Cowboys’ wide receivers coach. They have remained close over the years. It will be interesting to see how teacher and pupil compete in the game -- and how they interact after it.
PREDICTION: Both OSU and Mississippi entered the season with a lot of preseason expectations, but struggled to match that hype after midseason slumps. Both teams like to feature their running backs as the Rebels’ Dexter McCluster will be matched against the Cowboys’ versatile duo of Toston and Hunter. Veteran OSU defensive coordinator Bill Young has had nearly a month to cook up a scheme to contain McCluster. But the Cowboys need to find a way to muster enough plays on offense to enable them to win. That’s easier said than done as the Rebels should find a way to persevere late in the game. Prediction: Mississippi 24, Oklahoma State 21.
Cox is very familiar with Mississippi quarterback Jevan Snead. Cox and Snead were roommates at the 2006 Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
"I've kind of got a good relationship with him," Cox said. "I asked him to throw me a couple (of interceptions), but I don't know if that's going to work out."
Snead will challenge the Cowboys with speedy receiver Dexter McCluster in Saturday's game as his primary offensive weapon.
"A guy his size (5-foot-8, 165 pounds), you really don't want to let him get outside with his speed," Cox said. "You want to try to contain him and keep him to the inside."
McCluster and SEC receiving leader Shay Hodge have combined for 102 receptions this season. The Mississippi duo ranks only behind Florida's Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper, who produced 103 catches this season.
But he's been more proficient as a rusher, where McCluster gained a team-best 985 rushing yards and averaged 6.7 yards per carry. He also snagged 39 receptions for 475 yards.
"Our defense has said great things about him, and obviously some of the tape that I’ve watched he’s been very impressive. He’s got great speed and a great ability to make you miss," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. "There’s concerns there, there’s no question. He’s very, very talented. Our guys are looking forward to the challenge of corralling him.”
Jan. 2, 2 p.m. (FOX)
Mike Gundy’s team had hopes of making its first BCS at-large appearance before a stunning 27-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the season. They could be facing more of the same against a talented Mississippi defense that ranked in the top 25 in pass efficiency defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. The Rebels whipped Texas Tech at the point of attack last season in the Cotton Bowl and will be looking for more of the same against the Cowboys. But they will be facing a different challenge from a run-heavy Oklahoma State offense keyed by All-American offensive tackle Russell Okung, bullish running back Keith Toston (1,177 rushing yards) and 2008 Big 12 rushing leader Kendall Hunter, who will have another month to get over his early-season injuries.
Bill Young has done a nice job retooling Oklahoma State's defense, which ranked sixth nationally in rush defense and will be tested by leading Mississippi running back Dexter McCluster (985 yards). The key for the game could well be which team gets the best play from quarterbacks who struggled late in the season. Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson was hobbled with injuries and Mississippi's Jevan Snead threw three interceptions in a season-ending loss at Mississippi State. These teams have met once before when Mississippi escaped with a 31-28 victory over the Cowboys in the 2004 Cotton Bowl.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma (Big 12 No. 2) vs. Mississippi (SEC No. 2)
Oklahoma's record against the SEC: 3-3
Mississippi's record against the Big 12: 5-4
Previous series: Mississippi leads the series, 1-0
Most recent game: Mississippi won, 27-25, in the 1999 Independence Bowl
Distance between them (as the crow flies according to How Far Is It): 448 miles.
Where they should play: Shreveport, La. (279 miles from Oxford, 279 miles from Norman)
Who wins: Oklahoma.
Why: The Sooners won't be playing in the featured matchup of the mythical tournament. Maybe that would work in their favor against Mississippi, which is approaching the season with more national hype than any in recent memory.
Oklahoma's nine returning starters on defense would dictate this game, particularly in the trenches. A big concern would be at left tackle, where the Rebels will miss All-American Michael Oher. His likely replacement Bradley Sowell would be facing waves of Oklahoma pass rushers intent on pressuring Jevan Snead.
The Rebels' lack of depth along the offensive line is another big question mark I have. Oklahoma would be able to take advantage of that weakness with one of the nation's deepest and most talented defensive fronts, keyed by playmakers like Gerald McCoy, Auston English and Jeremy Beal.
Coach Houston Nutt has most of his skill-position players back and one of the nation's most talented quarterbacks in Snead. It would be interesting to see how Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables would try to counteract Mississippi wide receiver Dexter McCluster, particularly in the "Wild Rebel" formation.
I'd look for Sam Bradford and his collection of playmaking wide receivers to be able to exploit Mississippi's secondary. The Rebels have three starters back, but they still ranked 81st nationally in pass defense and would struggle to keep Oklahoma from dictating the game with their no-huddle passing attack.
The Rebels have the better kicker in Joshua Shene, who would be vitally important in a close game. But this one wouldn't be, as I would look for the Sooners to prevail by at least 10 points.
Friday: Texas (Big 12 No. 1) vs. Florida (SEC No. 1).
The count: SEC, 6-5.
Note: Matchups are determined by the most recent rankings of Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin and SEC blogger Chris Low. All cumulative records go back to the 1996 season -- the first of competition in the Big 12.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It may have been a surprise to most of the country.
|Vladimir Cherry/US Presswire|
|Texas Tech didn't have any answers for Jevan Snead, who threw for a career-high 292 yards and three TDs in the Cotton Bowl.|
But Mississippi might have proved a point about Southeastern Conference domination and the fallacy of Big 12 defenses when it lined up and whipped Texas Tech in the trenches to claim a convincing 47-34 victory in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
And the score might not have done justice to just how overpowering the Rebels' performance was. After spotting Tech a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Rebels blew the game open by erupting for 38 of the next 45 points.
The 30,000 Mississippi fans who attended the final Cotton Bowl game were doing the singing at the end, serenading the Red Raiders with chants of "overrated" and "SEC! SEC!"
It would be hard to argue with them after Tech's uninspired bowl performance, which put a sour ending to a 11-2 season which began with 10 straight victories.
After the early struggles, Mississippi's underrated offense took control and kept the ball for most of the first half. It paid dividends in the second half when a gasping Tech defense down several starters in the secondary simply couldn't keep up with the Rebels.
Tech's struggles were understandable considering starting cornerback L.A. Reed didn't dress due to an arm injury. Darcel McBath was removed for much of the game because of a hamstring injury. And Jamar Wall left the field limping in the first half.
McBath snagged his seventh interception of the year (tied for most in the country) and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown, which boosted Tech's early lead to 14-0. But his replacement, Jordy Rowland, was blistered after McBath was hobbled.
It paved the way for elusive Dexter McCluster to have a career game with 98 rushing yards and a team-best 83 receiving yards. Quarterback Jevan Snead did the rest as the Rebels seemingly gained confidence after their early struggles to convert five third downs in the first half -- leading to three touchdown drives -- that shifted the game's momentum.
Harrell passed for a Cotton Bowl record 358 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first player in college history to top 5,000 yards in two different seasons. And his touchdown binge enabled him to claim the FBS career record with 133 touchdown passes, jumping past Colt Brennan's previous record of 131.
But he also threw two interceptions caused by a relentless Mississippi blitzing defense. Rebels defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix repeatedly tormented Harrell with those blitzes, which came shooting through the Red Raiders' wide offensive splits.
The Rebels also did a strong job of tackling, keeping Tech from turning short passes into long gains. In fact, the longest Tech play of the game was a 44-yard scramble by Harrell on the last play of the first half that ended just short of the Mississippi end zone. Tech had only two passes of 20 yards or more.
That defensive pressure appeared to discombobulate the Red Raiders. That was best illustrated midway through the third quarter when Harrell unsuccessfully tried a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-4 in Tech territory. The play came up more than two yards short after a rare Red Raiders defensive stand had given them some momentum.
Crabtree was hobbled by an ankle injury that plagued him for most of the second half. He produced three catches in the first half, but only one after that and finished with a career-low 30 receiving yards.
Tech's struggling performance casts doubt on the Big 12's credibility, despite record-breaking offenses which piled up yards and points all season. It will be up to BCS participants Texas and Oklahoma to reclaim some of that respect in the conference's remaining bowl games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The Big 12 claimed its first bowl victory Monday night. But it will get a lot tougher tonight when Oklahoma State faces Oregon in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl.
Before we get there, here are a few lunchtime links to help prime the palate:
- Joseph Duarte of the Houston Chronicle writes that Texas players are excited to start their football preparations for the Jan. 5 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. "There comes a point when your mom asks you to take the trash out, so it was time to leave home and get here," Texas quarterback Colt McCoy said. "Those days off are nice, but now it's time to go back to work."
- The Kansas City Star's Jason Whitlock writes that Missouri shouldn't celebrate its Valero Alamo Bowl victory over Northwestern. Instead, Whitlock calls them "The kings of the pathetic North Division."
- Reid Laymance of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, the defensive MVP of the Tigers' Alamo Bowl victory over Northwestern, will return for another college football season. Weatherspoon hopes to convince his roommate Jeremy Maclin to join him.
- Texas Tech's defense is bracing for a heavy dose of Mississippi wide receiver Dexter McCluster from coach Houston Nutt's "Wild Rebel" formation in Friday's AT&T Cotton Bowl.
- Tonight's Pacific Life Holiday Bowl could serve as an important catapult for an Oklahoma State program hoping to compete for its first Big 12 South Division title next season. The Oklahoman's John Rohde said a win tonight could serve as a serious stimulus to the program's first BCS bowl appearance.
- Starting Kansas cornerback Justin Thornton won't play in the Jayhawks' Insight Bowl game Wednesday night against Minnesota, starting linebacker James Holt told the Topeka Capital-Journal's Tully Corcoran. It will mean senior Kendrick Harper will get the start for a Kansas pass defense that ranked 113th nationally in yards allowed.