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September 22, 2008Ole Miss fans have been breaking down frame-by-frame pictures of Dexter McCluster's fumble at the Vanderbilt 1-yard line in the final minutes of Saturday's 23-17 loss to the Commodores.
They've been searching for signs that McCluster's knee was touching the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium turf before Chris Marve jerked the football away and D.J. Moore picked it up in the end zone. The play, ruled a fumble on the field, was reviewed for several minutes before it was eventually confirmed. In the 48 hours since, still shots of the television replay have provided Rebel fans with some ammunition. While grainy, there are some visual shots that seem to support the stance that McCluster was down.
For his part, McCluster's not getting involved in the debate.
"I haven't seen any of it, but the referees called it a fumble, so it's a fumble and it's in the books now," McCluster said. "It's been tough. It's been hard, but my teammates have been encouraging me to just keep doing what I'm doing."
Pressed to recall the play and his feelings about the accuracy of the call, McCluster said he felt then that he was down before the ball was freed from his grasp.
"I felt that I was down, but like I said, there's nothing I can do about it and how I felt wasn't enough," said McCluster, who caught seven passes for 132 yards and added seven carries for 44 more.
The hours immediately following the play, which was the moment most will remember from a wild game that saw Ole Miss commit six turnovers and blow a chance at its first Southeastern Conference win since November 2006, were brutal.
"I wasn't able to sleep," McCluster said. "My dad, he actually left to go back to Florida at 2 o'clock Sunday morning, so I was up with him and then I was up until about 5 just thinking about it. Just the person that I am, I like to just do the best that I can do in every situation and I had a chance to help the team out, and I guess it didn't work out as planned. It's been good now, because a lot of teammates are coming up to me and a lot of coaches are coming up to me and telling how much they still look up to me and to just keep doing what I'm doing. That builds me up a lot. I'm just trying to put it behind me now."
On Monday, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt had high praise for McCluster, adding that he wants to continue to put the ball in the junior's hands as much as possible. Those sentiments, McCluster said, provide comfort and motivation as the Rebels prepare for Saturday's trip to Gainesville, Fla., for an 11:30 a.m. CDT kickoff against No. 4 Florida.
"It means a lot," McCluster said. "Someone can easily shut down after something like this and that's something I don't want to do because I do want to set an example for some of the other guys on the team that look up to me. I know if I just fold up and let this overwhelm me, it's going to mess up my game and my play and my focus, and I just thank everybody else for the support around me and the trust in me."
In some ways, McCluster said, Sunday's film session was therapeutic.
"It's kind of crazy when you sit down and watch the film," McCluster said. "The coaches tell you after the game that's it's one play here and one play there, but when you sit down and they point it out to you, it's right there on tape. One play here and one play there, we could have been great.
"Once we do make that step and win one of these big games, it's going to feel even better that we knew what we had to do and the mistakes we were making and we corrected them and it's going to make it that much better."