There were backflips across midfield, 50-yard dashes carrying oversized flags and a team-wide sprint to the student section. Ole Miss waited five years to feel this good and the Rebels were going to enjoy every second of it.
A season of revival that already included an upset at the Swamp culminated Friday with a 47-34 victory over No. 8 Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, sending No. 20 Mississippi into the offseason with a six-game winning streak and the anticipation of how coach Houston Nutt will build on his terrific debut year.
“I wish we could keep this team and bring it back,” Nutt said. Then, turning to some seniors next to him, he barked, “You can’t leave!”
Seconds later, he was so giddy that he told Cotton Bowl officials, “We’ll make the announcement we’ll come back next year, right now. Let’s go!”
To understand the excitement, appreciate how far this program has come: from 3-8 last season, winless in the SEC and bowl-less since 2003 (back when Eli Manning was a senior) to 9-4 and likely to grab a season-ending ranking in the teens.
It’s also worth noting those four losses were by a combined 19 points.
Better still, the surge to this warm-fuzzy finish began when the Rebels were 3-4 and smarting from consecutive losses after their road upset of then-No. 4 Florida.
“It’s … togetherness. That’s something we haven’t had in the past couple of years,” said Dexter McCluster, a 5-foot-8 bundle of moves and speed who ran 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown, and caught six passes for 83 yards. “Coach Nutt came in … and got us on the right track and got us to believe. ‘One heartbeat’ has been something we’ve been stressing all year. We never gave up on that.”
Although two All-American linemen and a big-play receiver are headed for the NFL, the program seems to be in good hands. The stars of this game—McCluster, quarterback Jevan Snead, and cornerback-punt returner Marshay Green—are all coming back.
In the final Cotton Bowl played in the stadium of the same name, the Red Raiders (11-2) converted a pair of early turnovers into a 14-0 lead. A team that stumbled on its way to the Big 12 and national championship games, then got left out of the BCS entirely, appeared to be channeling the disappointment against the SEC’s fourth-best team, according to the polls.
But Snead led the Rebels to touchdowns on their next three drives. A field goal on the following series put Ole Miss ahead for the first time, just before halftime. Once Green returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown and a 10-point lead early in the third quarter, the Rebels wouldn’t be denied. By game’s end, fans were chanting “S-E-C! S-E-C!” a message that came across loud and clear as schools from these leagues—No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Oklahoma— meet next week for the national title.
Even with time running out, Tech remained hopeful because of huge comebacks in its last two bowls. But every time the Red Raiders started to rise, they fell — failing on a fourth-down try after the Rebels missed a field goal, quarterback Graham Harrell getting thrown for a safety following a recovered fumble, then blowing a 2-point conversion and failing to recover an onside kick attempt after their final touchdown.
“They’re an incredibly good football team,” Tech coach Mike Leach said. “You have to fight very precisely in order to beat them.”
The Red Raiders still had the most exciting season in their history, peaking at No. 2 in the poll in mid-November. That’s little consolation now, after losing two of the last three games, this one keeping them from a school-record 12th win and dropping them to 0-4 in the Cotton Bowl.
“We would have liked to have finished on a better note,” said Harrell, who was 36-of-58 for a Cotton Bowl-record 364 yards and four touchdowns, and became both the NCAA career leader in touchdown passes (134) and the first player with multiple 5,000-yard seasons.
“It was still a very fun season.”
All-American receiver Michael Crabtree caught four passes for a career-low 30 yards in what might be his last college game. Slowed by an ankle injury sustained in the season finale, and having gotten poked in the eye, he caught a 2-yard pass for Harrell’s record-breaking touchdown but also fell on the pass that turned into Green’s game-breaking interception.
Snead, a Texas native who began his career with the Longhorns, was 18-of-29 for 292 yards and three touchdowns. After his interception that put Tech up 14-0, the Rebels didn’t have another turnover on the way to 515 yards.
McCluster, who at 5-foot-8 is hard to find and even harder to tackle, gave the Red Raiders fits. So did 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Gerald Harris, who caught two passes for 29 yards, both touchdowns—after having only five catches and two TDs all season. Mike Wallace made a terrific grab of a 41-yard pass between two defenders for another touchdown.
Green nearly stole the show by following his long interception return with what initially was called a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown. Upon review, however, he stepped out at the “nine and two-thirds yard line,” as the official described it.
Next year, the Cotton Bowl will be played in the $1.1 billion stadium being built by the Dallas Cowboys. To say goodbye to the old place, the bowl founder’s widow handled the pregame coin toss and the dates 1937 and 2009 were painted on the field between the words, “Celebrating 73 years.”
This turned out to be the most points in the game’s history and the biggest crowd, 88,175, thanks to a recent stadium expansion.