Dave Hooker's post-game audio
OXFORD, Miss. — It’s been a lousy few days for Tennessee football.
Ole Miss, in general, and Dexter McCluster, in particular, spent a gorgeous fall Saturday afternoon thoroughly spoiling the Vols’ late-season feel-good buzz.
The Rebels’ 42-17 victory and McCluster’s record rushing day materialized in the wake of the arrest Thursday of three of coach Lane Kiffin’s promising freshmen on charges of attempted armed robbery.
Finally, adding injury to insult, linebacker LaMarcus Thompson was carted off the field on a stretcher after a collision in the final minutes.
But one black eye didn’t lead to another, the Vols vowed after their worst defeat of the season, which is to say the Kiffin Era.
“I don’t think so,’’ Kiffin said. “I don’t know how that incident happened and all of a sudden we can’t tackle. Or, all of a sudden the same defensive tackle is tackling us in the backfield all day long, it felt like.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with that. I’ve got to do a better job of preparing us and a better job of managing the game.’’
The Vols (5-5, 2-4 SEC) failed to manage the elusive McCluster, who scored four touchdowns on runs of 15, 23, 32 and 71 yards.
When he finally trotted to the sideline for good to bask in the cheers of a crowd of 61,422, McCluster had thrust himself into the record book of both schools.
His 282 yards rushing were a new standard for Ole Miss (7-3, 3-3) and also for a Tennessee opponent.
“I was very nervous about him all week,’’ said Kiffin.
With good reason. McCluster touched the ball on three plays of a four-play scoring drive to open the game. After his 15-yard dash gave Ole Miss a 7-0 lead, Tennessee was in catch-up mode.
That never changed.
The Vols drew even at 7-7 and 14-14 on Jonathan Crompton touchdown passes.
The first was a 16-yarder to Jeff Cottam. The second came on a 25-yard toss to Denarius Moore early in the second quarter.
Tennessee, however never led.
McCluster’s 32-yard TD with 6:59 left in the first half put the Rebels on top to stay and it was still 21-14 at the half.
“He’s by far the best player we’ve played all year,’’ said defensive end Chris Walker.
“They have some great players down at Florida and down at Alabama. But this kid absolutely did what he wanted to on us.’’
The 25-point margin of defeat was more than the combined margin (20 points) of UT’s previous four losses this season.
Whether the presence of the arrested players — Janzen Jackson, Nu’Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards — would have made any significant difference could be debated. But the Vols weren’t willing to latch onto the black cloud as a way out.
“We just got outplayed,’’ said tailback Montario Hardesty, who was held to 55 yards rushing. “I don’t think we used that as an excuse at all.’’
Ole Miss outgained UT 492 yards to 275. The rushing game, which Kiffin hoped to win, was a landslide for the Rebels, 359 yards to 99.
Still, the Vols found themselves in excellent position to turn momentum their way in the second half.
Ole Miss botched a scoring opportunity at the end of the first half. Then UT drove for a first down at the Rebels’ 12 to open the third quarter.
Even though they settled for a 27-yard Daniel Lincoln field goal to make it 21-17, the Vols soon caught — or made — another break.
Wes Brown intercepted a Jevan Snead pass on the Rebels’ first drive of the second half and the Vols were only 43 yards from taking the lead.
It was not to be. The Ole Miss defense stood its ground and Crompton’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
The Rebels then crunched out a 13-play drive with Brandon Bolton scoring from the 1 to make it 28-17.
Tennessee’s only answer was a three-and-out possession and a Chad Cunningham punt.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, McCluster zoomed 71 yards to make it 35-14.
“Especially in your first year, you do have one of those days (when everything goes wrong),’’ Kiffin said. “But I’m not buying that.
“Halfway through the third quarter we’ve got the ball after a turnover and are going down to score to take the lead.
“So it didn’t feel like ‘one of those days.’ ’’
There was no coming back from 35-14. UT’s 12-game winning streak over the Rebels dating to 1983 was toast.
Tennessee’s highlight in the fourth quarter was getting close to get another Lincoln field-goal try blocked. Ole Miss, in total control, closed out with a 14-play drive that ended with a 4-yard Bolden touchdown.
“I thought we would play better,’’ Kiffin said. “We’re building a championship program. It’s a very disappointing loss, obviously, but one game will never define us.’’
One positive note: The post-game report on Thompson’s injury was encouraging. Tests of his head and neck were negative and UT’s medical personnel were optimistic.
Tennessee fans hungry for a powerhouse finish to Kiffin’s first season now turn to Vanderbilt and Kentucky with less optimism than they had in the middle of last week.
Re-building a program comes with setbacks.
“As much energy as was around our program,’’ Kiffin said, “with the blowouts against Georgia and South Carolina, and a field goal away from beating Alabama, that’s why I continued to remind our team we’ve got a long way to go.’’