Statistics might not tell the whole story about how good No. 3 Ole Miss’ defense has been this season.
But it’s certainly a good place to start.
The Rebels (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) are giving up just 10.6 points per game this season, which leads the Football Bowl Subdivision. Their 15 interceptions are tied for the national lead. The group has a knack for big plays, too, scoring almost as many defensive touchdowns (four) as the six they’ve allowed.
And in their latest 34-3 victory over Tennessee, they held the Volunteers to zero net rushing yards.
Now Ole Miss will have another challenge on Saturday when it travels to face an improved No. 24 LSU (6-2, 2-2), which is coming off a dominant 41-3 victory over Kentucky.
“The last two weeks, (LSU has) gotten back to doing their bread and butter — that’s physical (play), controlling the clock,” Freeze said. “They’re able to run the football with the outstanding backs that they have.”
The Rebels will counter with a defense that’s led by veteran coordinator Dave Wommack. It’s a mix of upperclassmen and newcomers, speed and strength, and features plenty of depth on the defensive line and in the secondary.
Senior Senquez Golson leads the Southeastern Conference with seven interceptions, including two against Tennessee. Standout freshman Marquis Haynes leads the team with 6½ sacks.
But more than individual effort, players say it’s a relentless group effort that doesn’t rely on one specific player.
“I think they have a very good defensive coordinator doing a very good job,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think there are talented guys in their secondary that anticipate the ball and can make plays. I just think the combination of scheme and players make a difference for them.”
Ole Miss has several veterans on the defense, including sixth-year senior linebacker Deterrian Shackelford.
The 23-year-old was a promising young player for the Rebels in 2009 and 2010 before knee injuries completely wiped out his next two seasons.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said last year he wasn’t sure if Shackelford would make much of a contribution when he returned because the injuries had been so severe. After a decent year in 2013, he’s thriving again this fall, ranking fourth on the team with 34 tackles.
“He’s a tremendous leader,” Freeze said. “He’s a grown man. He’s a veteran. He’s been around here and been through the ups and downs. He appreciates the things he has in this current season. He’s a humble kid. Humility is a tremendous quality. Probably none of us have enough of it.”
Junior defensive back Mike Hilton said it’s sometimes hard to believe how far the team has come during Freeze’s three seasons at Ole Miss.
“We knew it was going to take some time, but I’m not sure we ever thought it would take off like this,” Hilton said. “But we’ve just got to stay humble.”
Ole Miss has been so good on defense it’s changed the team’s offensive strategy. Instead of Freeze’s usual speed-it-up tempo, the Rebels are more deliberate and less likely to take chances.
“The big thing for me is I’m not trying to mess it up,” Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace said. “I’m going in and trying to not have any turnovers. The defense is playing well. If we punt it past the 50-yard line, they’re probably not going to get points. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable.”