OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss’ roster isn’t filled with the big bodies typical of a Southeastern Conference team.
But the Rebels have built a solid defense anyway, relying on speed, grit and sheer willpower to keep them competitive through 10 games this season.
“These kids are going to battle,” first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. “They’re going to fight.”
Ole Miss (5-5, 2-4 SEC) looked like it might have some serious problems on defense early in the season, especially after giving up 66 points and 676 yards in a lopsided loss to Texas on Sept. 15.
But the Rebels have improved greatly since that embarrassing evening, and the defense is part of the reason the Rebels are just one win from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2009.
Ole Miss has been especially good against the run in recent weeks, limiting Vanderbilt to just 92 rushing yards in last weekend’s 27-26 loss.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Freeze said. “We’re undersized and beat up at some spots in there, but the kids are playing with effort and have stopped some really good rushing attacks. I think they’ve done a wonderful job.”
That run defense will be seriously tested on Saturday when the Rebels travel to face No. 8 LSU (8-2, 4-2) in Baton Rouge. The Tigers are averaging nearly 193 yards per game on the ground, and have a surplus of physical running backs like Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard and Spencer Ware.
Ole Miss will counter with a defense that’s undersized at almost every position. Issac Gross, a true freshman, has started all season at nose tackle despite weighing just 255 pounds. Sophomore defensive end C.J. Johnson has managed to create some havoc off the edge despite weighing 230.
And redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche continues to get into the backfield for big plays despite being just 5-foot-11 and around 200 pounds. Ole Miss is tied for second in the SEC with 29 sacks.
LSU offensive lineman Trai Turner said Ole Miss makes up for a lack of size with an unpredictable defensive style.
“They have a lot of different multiple fronts,” Turner said. “They usually don’t stay in the position they start in at the snap of the ball. They like to do a lot of different twists, a lot of different stunts. They run a lot of different blitzes.
Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said the hardest part about stopping LSU’s running game is that the Tigers always seem to be fresh. The Rebels might have a lot of energy and hustle, but they don’t have much depth.
“Every time there’s a different play, there’s a different back in there,” Wommack said. “They’re all tough. They’re all physical.”
Stopping LSU has been further complicated by the Tigers’ much-improved passing game. Zach Mettenberger has thrown for 296 yards against Alabama and 273 yards against Mississippi State in back-to-back weeks.
“We definitely have to get to (Mettenberger) early,” Nkemdiche said. “The game they played against Alabama, the balls he was throwing and the passes he was making, he definitely got some confidence from that game.”
Nkemdiche said one good thing about facing LSU is that there isn’t much time needed in the film room. He says the Tigers are very good, but they’re not very complicated.
Ole Miss has a history of playing LSU tough in Baton Rouge. The Rebels last won in Death Valley in 2008.
“They’re a lot like Georgia — they’re real simple,” Nkemdiche said. “If we come out and execute we’re going to play a great game and I feel like that’s what our defense is going to do because we get really hyped for these games.”