Toward Next Season

ATLANTA, Ga. – On the night of Ole Miss’ 31-17 win against Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, C.J. Johnson sat in a chair in the front row of the Burns Team Meeting Room in the Manning Center to answer questions and talk about the win. The satisfaction from the victory was evident.

On the afternoon of Ole Miss’ 42-3 loss to TCU in the Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl, Johnson sat on the stage before the media inside the Georgia Dome. His demeanor was again obvious. Only this time it was the opposite of just a month earlier in Oxford on the Saturday night after Thanksgiving.

The Rebels had won the Golden Egg, that most coveted prize of Mississippi football supremacy, on Nov 29. Here, against a Horned Frog team determined to prove it belongs among the best in the country, the Rebels had laid the proverbial egg.

Ole Miss didn’t have everything to do with the outcome. There are always two sides to every story; in the case of sports, two teams that compete.

But on Dec. 31, it was TCU that left no doubt as to which team was best, at least on this particular day.

In other circumstances, with a healthier Rebel team and with equal motivation, which is often difficult to determine, things might have been different. But in this time and place, the Horned Frogs rolled from the start. And the Rebels were basically never in it.

“I don’t know that we ever had any momentum,” said Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze - also on stage with Johnson as well as Bo Wallace - in response to a reporter’s question about how some injuries in the game, namely Laremy Tunsil and Robert Conyers, had affected that momentum. “Our defense did create some turnovers, and I thought we stopped the run for the most part. But they just had to stay on the field almost the entire day.”

Injuries were a key factor for the Rebels the second half of the 2014 campaign. Tunsil’s was the latest in a line of unfortunate situations that ended a player’s season.

“It was a broken fibula, just like Laquon’s and Denzel’s,” Freeze said.

A voice from the other end of the stage - Johnson’s - said, “and mine.”

“And C.J.’s,” Freeze responded.

Johnson has been through this type situation before, too, with injury and now a disheartening loss.

“It’s just disappointing to send the seniors out like that,” said the junior defensive end who will return next year as one of the team’s true leaders.

It is always apparent from watching a game that Johnson is a player that gives his all and that it means so much to compete and win.

“At times we had (TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin) contained,” said Johnson, with three tackles for loss, including a sack, in the game. “It all came down to execution. It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for us. Early on they were hitting us with a little tempo there. We were looking over to the sidelines, and guys weren’t quite getting lined up. We missed a few assignments. I think it wasn’t so much what they were doing as it was poor execution on our part.”

Wallace pointed out that he and the other seniors had hoped this would be a bowl game to vault Ole Miss into 2015. And while it still can, it won’t do so with the highest energy it could have had the Rebels won the game.

“It’s pretty obvious I didn’t want to go out this way,” Wallace said after finishing his Ole Miss career 24-15, averaging eight wins per season as a three-year starter. “I didn’t want the seniors to go out this way. Really we had a chance to help next year’s team in the preseason ratings, and that was important to me. This program’s given me a lot, and I thought winning this game could be me helping give them something with a Top 5 rating in the preseason next year.”

“Obviously just a very disappointing day,” said Freeze.

The disappointment was as apparent on the face and in the demeanor of C.J. Johnson as anyone.

But there’s no doubt Johnson will again be one of the team’s leaders in 2015, his senior year, as he and the Rebels try to get back to a New Year’s Six Bowl. And next time give a better account of themselves.

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