OXFORD — Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze frowned and looked down at his injury report, then started to list all the guys who might not play this weekend.
A minute later, he was finished. He had named nearly half of the starting defense, the starting running back and the backup quarterback.
That’s a big issue for the Rebels (3-3, 1-3 Southeastern Conference), considering they’re preparing to face No. 6 LSU (6-1, 3-1). The Tigers are averaging 41.4 points per game, which ranks third in the league.
“It’s part of the game, but you sure hate it,” Freeze said. “You hate it for the kids. You fear that because of our depth issues we won’t be able to adequately represent the progress we’re making against these top teams. But that’s part of the game. We won’t blink. We’ll get the ones we have ready.”
For Ole Miss, stopping LSU’s offense is another huge challenge in a month full of them. The Rebels have lost three straight to Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M.
It won’t get any easier against the Tigers.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been one of the SEC’s best players this season, throwing for 1,890 yards, 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His main targets are two of the league’s most prolific receivers — Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry — and running back Jeremy Hill is second in the SEC with 119.2 yards rushing per game.
“Our goal (against LSU) will be to eliminate the amount of explosive plays that they have and manage the game that way,” Freeze said. “But those guys are good enough where they’re going to win some of those battles.”
Ole Miss will be trying to beat LSU with a skeleton crew. Freeze said linebacker Serderius Bryant (concussion) and defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (hamstring) are among about a half-dozen defensive players who would likely miss Saturday’s game.
Bryant leads the team with 55 tackles.
Ole Miss is coming off a 41-38 loss to Texas A&M last weekend. The Rebels had a 38-31 lead with six minutes remaining before Johnny Manziel led the Aggies on back-to-back scoring drives to win the game.
But quarterback Bo Wallace said no one is going to feel sorry for the Rebels — especially not LSU. Wallace threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns against the Aggies and said similar production will be needed to keep up with the Tigers.
“It’s tough,” Wallace said. “You feel bad for the guys, but at the same time, we still have a long season. We have to be prepared to play this week. A lot of defensive guys are going to be out, so on offense we have to be on point. We’ve got to put up points.”
The LSU-Ole Miss series is consistently competitive, though the Tigers have won the past three, including last season’s 41-35 thriller in Baton Rouge.
LSU coach Les Miles said he’s aware that Ole Miss has injury issues, but still expects a tough game.
“We’re preparing for their best effort,” Miles said. “We see on film that they’re very talented and capable.”
Ole Miss will still have most of its offensive starters, though the potential loss of running back Jeff Scott (thigh bruise) looms large. Scott was one of the team’s best players early in the season, but the 5-foot-8, 162-pound senior was held to just 10 yards on four carries against the Aggies after getting hurt in the first half.
Backup quarterback Barry Brunetti threw for two touchdowns against Texas A&M, but injured his throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter after landing hard on a scramble. Brunetti has a consistent role in the offense — usually in short-yardage situations — and he showed his value against the Aggies before the injury.
Brunetti said he hopes to be available for the LSU game, though the shoulder is still sore.
n In related news, Ole Miss defensive end C.J. Johnson will have season-ending surgery on his right ankle.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Johnson hasn’t been fully healthy since he suffered a broken fibula in his right leg during spring practice in March. He played in the first four games this season, making 12 tackles, including four for a loss. He led the Rebels with 6.5 sacks in 2012.
But the ankle started hurting again during the Rebels’ Sept. 28 loss to Alabama and the junior from Philadelphia, Miss., hasn’t played since. Coach Hugh Freeze said Thursday that surgery has been scheduled for Oct. 28 and Johnson expects to qualify for a medical redshirt.
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