Ole Miss seniors looking to go out with a bang

If Ole Miss offensive lineman Justin Bell has it his way, Saturday will be one long, extended celebration.

The Rebels are set to face off against rival LSU at 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS - the final home game for 20 Ole Miss seniors, including Bell. With a bowl appearance this season, the class will be the first to go bowling in four straight seasons since the 2000 seniors.

“Going through it you don’t think about how fast it is,” Bell said. “We have some memories when we think about stuff we did, we’ll talk about our time in the dorm room, and we realize it was four or five years ago. It went by a lot faster. As we were going through it, we didn’t think about it like that. But it blew by.”

Not since 2003 has a senior class had 31 wins in a four-year span, and Bell and Co. can boast of such accomplishments as an appearance in a New Year’s Six Bowl (the 2014 Peach Bowl), the highest national ranking (No. 3) since 1964 and back-to-back wins over Alabama for the first time in program history.

But there’s work left yet. No. 25 Ole Miss is 7-3 (4-2 SEC) on the year with two games remaining. The Rebels no longer control their SEC championship game destiny, but there is still plenty to play for. They’ll close the regular season at in-state rival Mississippi State.

CBS recently projected Ole Miss to the Texas Bowl, while ESPN forecasted the Rebels to the Belk or Citrus Bowl. Of course, should Auburn upset Alabama and Ole Miss win out, the Rebels would reach the SEC championship game for the first time in school history, and the bowl picture would become much clear.

“It's kind of crazy,” linebacker/defensive end C.J. Johnson, who has played in 48 career games and has 165 career tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks, said. “We've been talking about it, and now it's finally here. I'm just going to embrace the week. I'm just ready to go out and play in the stadium one more time.”

Petre Thomas

“It flew by,” defensive back Mike Hilton, a Thorpe Award semifinalist, said. Hilton tops all SEC DBs with 8.0 TFLs, and he’s tied for fourth in the SEC with nine passes defended. Hilton has 202 career tackles, 21.0 TFLs, 26 passes defended and six interceptions.

“I feel like I was just a freshman coming and now I’m playing my last game in the Vaught. It’s going to be a bittersweet feeling, but it comes to an end eventually. Really just how this program has turned around completely. Nobody thought it would be this fast and have this much of an impact in recruiting and college football period. Really just where we came from to where we are now.”

Among the remaining seniors winding down their Ole Miss careers are Fahn Cooper, Cody Core, Trae Elston, Woodrow Hamilton, Aaron Morris, Jaylen Walton and Channing Ward. Add in a few juniors expected to forgo their final seasons for the NFL (Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell) and the game is sure to be emotional.

“It hit me a few weeks ago, to be honest with you,” Bell said. “It hit me when I was going through my ankle injury and stuff like that. Kind of got emotional when it first hit me. But I’m anxious, and I feel like Ole Miss prepared me for what’s next to come.”

Fournette Presents Challenge for Rebel ‘D’

No. 17 LSU comes to Oxford with a 7-2 overall record and 4-2 mark in league play. After a 7-0 start, the Tigers have dropped their last two contests at Alabama and vs. Arkansas.

One of the nation’s best running backs, sophomore Leonard Fournette, averages a nation-leading 163.8 rushing yards per game. His 17 touchdowns paces LSU. Suffice to say, the Rebels know they’ll have their hands full.

“Everybody knows what he can do with the ball in his hands,” Hilton said. “He’s a downhill guy, but he also has the speed to pull away from you. We just got to gang-tackle him, get a lot of bodies around him and just focus on getting him down to the ground.”

“He's a big guy,” Johnson said. “He runs really well. He loves contact. It's going to be a really good game. He's a Heisman contender, I still think. It's hard when you talk about running backs. It's kind of a team effort. If some guys are not doing their part the running back position will take kind of a hit no matter how good he is. You can't look at the last two games he played. They're still a great football team.”

Fournette totaled 1,352 yards in the first seven games of the season. However, he’s been held in check the last two weeks, combining for 122 yards on 38 carries in the back-to-back losses.

“If you can get him to make that one cut in the backfield, give the defense time to pursue, you will have a chance,” Johnson said. “That will play a big part if we can get penetration and get in the backfield and disrupt him a little bit.

“I think we did a good job all year particularly in conference play of stopping the run. We just had a few times with big plays. The key is everyone playing gap football and running to the ball and gang-tackling. I think it's kind of hard when you try to tackle a good back like that one-on-one all the time. They're going to win some one-on-ones like that because they're great running backs, so we have to gang tackle and make sure everyone gets to the ball.”

Hilton dismisses the notion Ole Miss is out for revenge this weekend. LSU handed the then-No. 3 ranked Rebels their first loss (a 10-7 final) of the 2014 season. Fournette, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee piled up 264 rushing yards, the first opponent Ole Miss allowed to top 200 rushing yards all season.

Petre Thomas

“It’s a little motivation but it’s also motivation because it’s the next game. You know, it’s a big rivalry game. It’s a fun game to be around, a fun game to play in. We’re going to be ready Saturday,” Hilton said. “(Last season) was a 10-7 game, went down to the fourth quarter. We were drained a little bit. We didn’t have as much depth as we do this year. We feel like that depth is going to help us in the long run, and hopefully it’s going to turn out our way.”

Bell, however, says differently. The upset in Death Valley still hangs with him.

“To be honest with you, yes it does,” he said. “But we had to put that game in the trash, but we’re playing for something totally different this year, so I mean we just have to stay strong, finish the season strong and depending on how it plays out, we’ll either be in a sunny bowl or playing in Atlanta.”

Rebels Looking to Rebound

The Ole Miss defense had its worst effort in four seasons under head coach Hugh Freeze against Arkansas. The Rebels surrendered over 600 yards of offense, including 442 passing yards and six touchdowns to Razorback QB Brandon Allen. Arkansas won 53-52.

“To be honest, I don’t know,” Hilton said of the defensive struggles. “It’s a lot of things. Missed tackling, missed assignments, the simple stuff that you can take care of. It’s going to happen throughout the season. We just got to make sure we don’t lose any confidence in how we play and what we can do so we know what the guys on the defense can do and rally around and get their confidence back rolling and get better.”

“I think a lot had to do with miscommunication,” Johnson said. “We weren't communicating as well. Some uncharacteristic things were happening. Guys would make mistakes who don't normally make mistakes. It was just a combination of a bunch of different things. It was always just one guy on every single play. It was just one of those games.”

LSU is No. 8 in the SEC in total offense. QB Brandon Harris is the only Tiger to attempt a pass this year, entering the game 102 of 182 for 1,497 yards and 11 touchdowns to only two interceptions. Malachi Dupre (31 catches, 529 yards, six TDs) and Travin Dural (28 catches, 533 yards, three TDs) are Harris’ primary targets.

“Our coaches do a good job of getting everybody to focus week to week,” Johnson said. “No matter if we win by 50 or we lose by 50, we always come back the next week with a fresh start and focus in on the opponent, so I think from a mental standpoint everybody is excited and looking forward to this game.”

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