McCluster, Dixon to square off
Published 11:57 pm Thursday, November 26, 2009
JACKSON (AP) — This year’s Egg Bowl matchup between No. 20 Mississippi and Mississippi State is a tough one for middle linebackers.
Ole Miss features Dexter McCluster, who’s as hard to tackle as smoke. Then there’s Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon, who plays a lot like a runaway dump truck in a bad mood.
Both are poised to reach single-season rushing milestones for their teams in a game that could feature more than 60 rushing plays.
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‘‘We’ve got to stop McCluster,’’ Mississippi State linebacker Jamar Chaney said. ‘‘But they also got to stop Dixon. Both defenses got their hands full.’’
Do they ever.
Dixon has been running over and around defenses all season. He’s the No. 2 rusher in the Southeastern Conference with 125.8 yards per game and sixth in the nation. With 1,258 yards this season, including a single-game record 252 against Kentucky, he holds almost every significant Mississippi State (4-7, 2-5 SEC) rushing record and could pick up the last one if he hits his average and rushes for 126 yards against the Rebels.
That would push him past James Johnson’s mark of 1,383 yards set in 1998.
Dixon credits an offseason workout program in coach Dan Mullen’s first year that helped him slim down. And his opponents have taken notice.
‘‘Dixon is the type of back that once he gets the ball and is going down hill with a full head of steam. He’s going to be a hassle to get him down,’’ Ole Miss defensive end Kentrell Lockett said. ‘‘He’s shed some weight and is slimmer, so he’s shifty now. He’s not just that guy that will run over you now. He’s pretty much taken the team on his back.’’
The same can be said of McCluster. Little more than a role player the first half of the season for Ole Miss (8-3, 4-3) despite a breakout year in 2008, coaches installed him as the starting tailback about halfway through and he has made defenses look helpless since.
The 5-10, 170-pound back couldn’t be more different from Dixon, but he’s having the same impact. McCluster is averaging 184.8 yards rushing and 238.3 all-purpose yards in four SEC games since the switch, and is responsible for seven touchdowns during that time. He set school records for most yards rushing (282) and most all-purpose yards (324) against Tennessee and needs just 97 yards to become the fourth Rebel with 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
He got the ball 29 times last week and hopes to get the ball even more against the Bulldogs.
‘‘If I touch the ball 29 times, something’s bound to happen,’’ McCluster said.
That’s a fact pundits pointed at many times during the early part of the Rebels’ season. He had very little impact as Ole Miss went 4-2 with key losses to South Carolina and Alabama.
McCluster’s still not sure what changed his coaches’ minds about how to use him before the Arkansas game.
‘‘Coach came to me and told me to get ready for the ball 20-plus times,’’ McCluster said. ‘‘And I think after that game it’s like, ’We’re going to keep you here because you’re able to make plays and we’re going to see what happens.’ And good things are happening right now.’’
Are they ever. The Rebels have won three straight and five of six, and are poised to reached nine wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1961-62. The vast improvement started against Arkansas when McCluster became the first Ole Miss player in the modern era (since 1965) to have more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in a game.
Along the way, he’s been nothing but a highlight reel. There was the four-touchdown performance against Tennessee, for instance, or last week’s game against LSU when he opened his day with a 40-yard run, then threw a 27-yard touchdown pass to rally his team late.
Nothing stands out like his 71-yard scoring run against the Volunteers when the Largo, Fla., native started left, got bottled up along the sideline, then whipped past defenders with a vicious cutback. Call it McCluster’s signature run.
‘‘I know when people watch, it looks like the end of the road once I get to the left side, like I ran out of real estate,’’ McCluster said. ‘‘Me cutting back across the field, it felt like high school again. It felt fun. It felt great.’’
Dixon has a few signature runs of his own, but none more illustrative than the 70-yard run against Houston when he carried three defenders the final 10 yards to score.
The play summed up all the traits — his speed, his power and his unwillingness to give in and quit — that have made the 6-foot-1, 235-pound Terry, Miss., native the Bulldogs’ most decorated rusher.
He has one more chance to carry his teammates downfield, just like he did those tacklers.
‘‘I just want to lead us to victories,’’ Dixon said. ‘‘And I definitely want to get this one, you know, because I just feel we’re improved even though it’s not going to change us to a bowl. We won four last year. This would get us to five this year. It would be a type of improvement. It would be taking another step toward getting Mississippi State back on the path.’’