DALLAS (AP)-Ole Miss isn't just the team that handed Florida its only loss. These Rebels are seriously on the rise.
Behind Jevan Snead's passing, Dexter McCluster's squirming runs and some big returns by Marshay Green, No. 20 Mississippi overcame an early deficit and beat No. 7 Texas Tech 47-34 Friday 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, but Snead led the Rebels to touchdowns on their next three drives, followed by a go-ahead field goal shortly before halftime. Once Green returned an interception 65 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter, Ole Miss (9-4) was well on its way to capping coach Houston Nutt's first season in grand style.
This was Mississippi's sixth straight win, matching its longest streak since 2003, when Eli Manning was a senior. That also was the last time the Rebels had been to a bowl.
This roll began when Ole Miss was only 3-4 and coming off consecutive losses following its stunning upset at the Swamp. Actually, it might've begun the week before when a late comeback at Alabama came up short. The string includes a win at LSU when the Tigers were No. 18.
"These guy have such great character and it's gotten better each and every week," Nutt said.
A postgame celebration five years in the making was practically worth the wait to the 44,000 or so Rebels fans, nearly all of whom stuck around until long after the game. When time ran out, one player tumbled across the 50-yard line and others ran around carrying flags. Several guys gleefully held up a wipe board with the message, "94 percent said we couldn't (...) WE DID."
In the final minutes, Ole Miss fans chanted "Hou-ston Nutt! Hou-ston Nutt!" and cheered when defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix got a cooler of blue juice dumped on him. They also enjoyed breaking into chants of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" three times in the closing minutes.
A little louder and the cheer might've been heard at the Big 12 offices about 12 miles away. Still, the message that the fourth-best team in the SEC, according to the polls, is better than the third-best team in the Big 12 came across loud and clear, and is worth noting as schools from these leagues-No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Oklahoma-meet next week for the national title.
The Red Raiders had a direct path to playing in that game until getting crushed by the Sooners in late November. At the time, they were unbeaten and ranked second, the highest mark in school history.
Getting drubbed in two of the last three games takes some shine off Tech's season, and kept senior quarterback Graham Harrell from going out with the school's record-setting 12th win.
Harrell's consolation was several statistical feats: most career touchdowns in major college football (four in this game made it 134 for his career, breaking the record of 131 set by Hawaii's Colt Brennan) and first player with two 5,000-yard passing seasons. Harrell was 36-of-58 for a Cotton Bowl-record 364 yards, giving him 5,111 yards this season. Only five other quarterbacks have cracked 5,000, including Brennan and two others from Texas Tech.
All-American receiver Michael Crabtree caught only four passes for 30 yards in what might be his last college game. Slowed by an ankle injury sustained in the season finale, his highlight was a 2-yard touchdown catch for Harrell's record-breaker and his lowlight was falling down on the pass that turned into Green's interception and return for the score that put Ole Miss up 31-21.
Snead, a Texas native who began his career with the Longhorns, was 18-of-29 for 292 yards and three touchdowns. He threw an early interception that was returned for the touchdown that put Tech up 14-0, but the Rebels didn't have another turnover the rest of the way while piling up a season-best 515 yards.
McCluster, who at 5-foot-8 is hard to find and even harder to tackle, was at the center of everything, running 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown, and catching six passes for 83 yards. On the other end of the spectrum, 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end Gerald Harris caught two passes for 29 yards, both touchdowns-after having only five catches and two TDs all season.
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.
This was the 73rd Cotton Bowl and the last in its namesake home. Next year, it'll be played in the $1.1 billion stadium being built by the Dallas Cowboys. 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."