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TCU presents challenge for Rebels defense

When Ole Miss players and coaches turn on the video of TCU’s tremendously explosive offense, they see something that conjures feelings of a terrifying threat that thwarted the Rebels in years past.

That threat mostly comes in the form of TCU All-American quarterback Trevone Boykin, who electrified the nation this season with 4,411 total yards of offense and 39 total touchdowns. Boykin’s on-field talents have been dazzling to watch, just like a quarterback who just left the SEC in 2014.

“Boykin, they’ve got great players around him, but he’s a different animal,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told reporters this week.

“He reminds me of Johnny Manziel when we had to play and defend him. He’s very similar to that.”

Oh yes, the same Johnny Football who averaged 395 yards of offense and directed Texas A&M to 71 points in two victories over Freeze and his Rebels. While Boykin isn’t exactly the amazing improviser Manziel was -- he only had 29 rushes of 10-plus yards this year compared to the 36 and 47 Manziel had the past two seasons -- Boykin does possess that game-changing gene that helped the Horned Frogs rise near the top of the college football landscape this year. Ole Miss players believe TCU’s offense looks eerily similar to the Manziel-led offenses of the Aggies.

“It’s always a red flag for a defense when you’ve got a quarterback is that caliber [of player],” Ole Miss All-American cornerback Senquez Golson said. “They have a lot of athletes; they make a lot of plays. It’s definitely one of the better offenses we’ll face this year.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think we could have had a better matchup. This is really going to put our defense to the test and see what we got.”

Added linebacker Serderius Bryant: “You think about it as you get to play Johnny again.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound firecracker helped push the sixth-ranked Horned Frogs (11-1) to the tip of the College Football Playoff behind the nation’s No. 4 offense (542.2 yards per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (46.8 points per game). TCU has scored 40-plus points eight times and hit 82 against Texas Tech, a game in which Boykin threw seven touchdowns.

Boykin and that spread offense are scary, but the Rebels present an equally as imposing defense for the Frogs to handle in this year's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31. Ole Miss owns the nation’s best scoring defense (13.8 points per game and 18 touchdowns allowed) and the No. 13 defense overall, allowing 321.2 yards per game.

The best defense TCU has faced this year? That would be Texas’ 26th-ranked defense (348.3) That isn’t bad at all, but the Horned Frogs piled on 34 points and gained a season-low 368 yards.

So how does Ole Miss’ defense, which spent the entire season near the top of the SEC, plan to stop Boykin and that fantastic offense? Bryant says the key is containing Boykin and combating speed with, well, speed – something Bryant says is the best he’s seen on Ole Miss’ defense during his four-year career.

The Rebels struggled with containing the middle of the field against Manziel when he took off under duress. Ole Miss collapsed the pocket well and took away his receivers at times, but they left themselves vulnerable up the middle, where Manziel absolutely gashed the Rebels, rushing for a combined 253 yards in those two games.

This season, Bryant said with increased speed at linebacker, the Rebels have been better equipped against running quarterbacks. The best rushing performances by QBs against Ole Miss this season were from Louisiana-Lafayette’s Terrance Broadway (59 yards) and Auburn’s Nick Marshall (50 yards and two touchdowns).

Boykin rushed for 642 yards and averaged 54.7 yards per game, but he likes to make a lot of plays outside the pocket, whether it’s running or throwing. That means the Rebels will have have to spy on him and collapse the pocket while being disciplined across the line of scrimmage and filling run gaps in order to take away potential big plays from Boykin’s arm and legs.

“As soon as he takes that step forward and tries to run, the defense is going to collapse on him,” Bryant said. “… If everyone knows that, it’s going to happen.”

Boykin is a special player, but the TCU offense can hurt teams in so many ways. Running back Aaron Green is averaging 7.7 yards per carry (854 rushing yards), and five players grabbed at least 29 receptions, including wide receiver Josh Doctson, who led the team in catches (59), yards (959) and touchdowns (nine).

There’s motion, space and quickness to frustrate a defense, and the Rebels know they’ll be on high alert.

“That’s how they put up big points,” Bryant said. “They put up points in all senses with throwing a lot of different things that confuse defensive coordinators. We have to get ready for that.”

But TCU also has to be ready for the Rebels, who held top SEC offenses at Alabama and Mississippi State to less than 20 points this year. The Rebels' defense has been impressive in its own right, and to Golson, he hasn’t seen a better defense face TCU.

“I’m really excited to find out, but I don’t think so,” he said. “… It might be even more exciting for us because we get to face this type of offense. It’s always exciting to play a team out of conference, so I’m just glad we’re playing a team like TCU.”