And we’re back. You’re here for one of a few possible reasons. Maybe you read yesterday’s piece about Marcus Mariota‘s first “wow” moment of his freshman season, and just couldn’t wait to read more. More likely, you came for the otherwise excellent journalism of Eugene Daily News and got stuck here like an elephant in a mud-pool. Another entire article about one single play? I know, I know, but hey, there are worse things to do on a Tuesday.
That said, the saga continues: The Defining Nine.
8. The Pick-6 (September 22, vs. Arizona, 4th quarter)The Play: On 3rd and 7, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu intercepts Arizona quarterback Matt Scott’s pass and returns it 54 yards for a touchdown.
Coming into the 2012 season, you knew about the Oregon offense. You knew about the astronomical yardage totals and the blink-and-it’s-over drives. And if you knew much about the Oregon defense, you probably knew about John Boyett, the hard-hitting senior safety.
What you didn’t know was that by the second week of the season, Boyett’s career with Oregon would be over as the result of both of his knees requiring surgery. You probably didn’t know much about Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the sophomore cornerback from Chino Hills, California, who would rise from unknown to third team AP All-American. You also probably didn’t know much about junior safeties Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson.
But that’s okay, because now you know.
In the days following the announcement of Boyett’s impending surgeries, Jackson was asked about what the secondary was losing from a leadership standpoint.
“John always made a lot of audibles,” he said. “Because of his film study, he always knew what routes were coming at what time. All of us are capable of doing that. We just have to step up.”
Less than two weeks later, the new-look Ducks secondary faced its first real test – Arizona quarterback Matt Scott and new head coach Rich Rodriguez’s high-octane spread offense – one that had scored 59 and 56 points in its previous two games. No matter. En route to a shutout, the Ducks’ secondary picked off Scott three times, as well as backup quarterback BJ Denker one time.
Two of those interceptions belonged to Ekpre-Olomu, the second of which he returned for a touchdown. Under pressure, Scott rolled out to his left and threw to wide receiver Dan Buckner, who had run a corner route on the near sideline. Ekpre-Olomu stepped in front, hauled in the interception, and sprinted the opposite way for the touchdown.
The reason for his success? You guessed it: preparation.
“When we were watching film, I noticed that they like to throw a lot to the boundary, to their isolated receiver,” Ekpre-Olomu said after the game. “I was making sure that I was changing up my coverage every time to throw off the quarterback so he couldn’t just key on to what I’m doing every play.”
Given fellow starting cornerback Terrance Mitchell’s notoriety, Ekpre-Olomu was targeted often, especially early in the season. Really, so was the entire Oregon secondary, a crew of relative unknowns, at least compared to a more star-studded front seven, which includes seniors Kiko Alonso, Michael Clay, and Dion Jordan. Opponents threw on Oregon 482 times, good for an average of just over 40 passes per game – tenth highest in the nation.
Of course, that number can be partially attributed to how early and often opposing teams fell into large deficits. But get this: despite the aerial assaults, the Ducks held opposing quarterbacks to an average rating off 111.60, 19th worst in college football.
What Ekpre-Olomu did to Scott was no fluke. Time and time again, Oregon defensive backs made their reads and intercepted the quarterback – 23 times, to be exact, tied for the most in the nation. All of this without Boyett, and eventually, Patterson – but that’s something to be saved for later in these rankings.
In the same quarter as Ekpre-Olomu’s touchdown – in fact, immediately after ESPN showed a replay of the pick-six – cornerback Troy Hill collected a pick-six of his own. (Side note: Coincidentally, I had just made my way down to the field, as the fourth quarter was coming to a close. Considering Arizona’s offense had the ball and was headed towards the opposite end-zone, I felt safe in walking behind the end-zone on my side of the field.
I was wrong. Hill picked off Denker, sprinted to the corner of the end-zone, and was mobbed by his teammates against the wall just beneath the student section. After side-stepping their swarming celebration, I reached for my camera phone to get an up-close shot, but my struggles to enter the right button in time left me without a picture. I suppose we don’t all have hands as steady as Ekpre-Olomu’s and Hill’s.)
In the next two games, Patterson got in on the action, scoring twice on interceptions. It had become clear that this Oregon secondary was one you had better get to know, even as public hype continued to put the Ducks’ offensive stars in the spotlight. But don’t tell that to the backpedaling boys in green and yellow.
Sometimes good defense can be the best offense. Literally.
Already two down and seven more to go. Be sure to check back for my continuation of these rankings. Here’s a teaser: #7 will be more about what happened after a play than the play itself.