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Oregon's defense has taken a big hit but can still dish them out too

Oregon's oft-maligned defense came together late in season but now must overcome loss of CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Oregon football's near-pathological aversion to injury acknowledgment is legendary, if not comical.

The company line reminds you of that line from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" — "It's just a flesh wound" — as a knight's limbs are systematically severed.

You could see an Oregon player go down, in plain light of day, sometimes on a stretcher, and never get an administrator to break his deadpan look.

To be fair, open heart surgery and a hangnail are ignored equally in Oregon's official non-injury log book.

The football philosophy, honed to perfection by former coach Chip Kelly and embraced by successor Mark Helfrich, is an accepted-practice coping mechanism in a sport that does not demand informational accountability.

The "next man up" mantra has served Oregon well but, this year, isn't fooling anyone.

Injuries along the offensive line caused quarterback Marcus Mariota to get sacked 12 times in a two-game stretch against Washington State and Arizona. Oregon survived a close call at Pullman but lost the next week at home against the Wildcats.

The blocking unit has stitched together enough working pieces to help the Ducks earn a College Football Playoff semifinal spot in Thursday's Rose Bowl against Florida State.

The crushing news has now turned on the defense with word that star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will miss the game after suffering a significant knee injury last week at practice.

Trying to hide the loss of an All-America was like trying to hide an elephant, so even Oregon couldn't pretend it didn't happen.

Ekpre-Olomu hired his own public relations firm, himself, and released a Christmas Eve hospital Instagram photo of his left knee after surgery. He thanked the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic for a successful operation and promised "one of greatest comebacks you'll ever see."

We know it won't come before Thursday's Rose Bowl, however, which removes from the play list one of the nation's best "cover" cornerbacks and tacklers.

Ekpre-Olomu is a three-year starter and has been named to several All-America teams. He would have been assigned, in the Rose Bowl, to Florida State's star receiver Rashad Greene.

The injury even bummed Greene out.

"Honestly, I'm kind of disappointed," Greene said during media availability on Sunday at a downtown Los Angeles hotel. "I was looking forward to competing against the best."

Ekpre-Olomu's injury came just as Oregon defense's was turning the corner on a widely-held perception that it would be the reason the Ducks couldn't win this year's national championship.

Oregon's unit, for a five-game stretch from late September to late October, allowed an average of 30.6 points per game.

In an Oct. 24 win over California at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Oregon gushed away 41 points and 560 total yards.

Good thing Oregon's offense scored 59, huh?

Things dramatically improved late in the year, though, and the team returned to the same stadium on Dec. 5 with a different mind-set.

The defense that looked so bad against Cal dominated Arizona as the Ducks avenged their only loss with a 51-13 blowout of the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Conference title game. Arizona got to 13 with two meaningless second-half touchdowns, the second one as time expired.

"To give up two silly touchdowns, it bothered me," outside linebacker Tony Washington said. "I think it bothered a lot of guys on the team."

This was a far cry from the days when, when it came to allowing points, some Oregon defenders couldn't be bothered.

The Ducks held Arizona to 224 yards, less than half of the 495 they allowed in the Oct. 2 loss in Eugene.

Oregon's defense still ranks only 82nd nationally, but is No. 29 in scoring defense at 22.5 points a game, a few decimal blips ahead of No. 30 Florida State (23.0).

The Ducks' average dropped to 14 over their last three games, as the unit coalesced around first-year coordinator Don Pellum.

"We've heard a lot about our defense," senior safety Erick Dargan said Sunday of the unit's shaky reputation. "Sometimes we even laugh about it. But if you look closely, each week, we've improved."

Dargan said the defense has increased its intensity and focused on fundamentals. He called it "sharpening up the sword."

The unit must now fend without Ekpre-Olomu, one of the team's surest tacklers.

The defense will miss more than his football talent. Ekpre-Olomu is a three-year starter who has been here before, playing in the Rose Bowl as a true freshman.

"We lose kind of a spiritual leader there, a guy with a lot of experience, a guy that's been in battle, in the heat of battle," said Pellum, who was promoted to defensive coordinator this year after the retirement of Nick Aliotti.

The good news, if it can be called that, is that Oregon rotates a lot of defensive players during the course of a game. Keeping the unit fresh is necessary to counter the Ducks' own up-tempo offense, which scores (and punts) quickly.

The loss of Ekpre-Olomu might also be mitigated because nagging injuries had already compromised his effectiveness. He rarely played at 100% this season and several pass-happy teams, Washington State in particular, directly attacked him. His tackles were down considerably, 63 versus 84 last year.

He made a spectacular, acrobatic interception against Michigan State on Sept. 6, but had only one other pick the rest of the year.

Chris Seisay, the redshirt freshman likely to take Ekpre-Olomu's cornerback spot in the Rose Bowl, got valuable time in the defensive rotation, registering 20 tackles.

Freshman Arrion Springs and senior Dior Mathis will also be asked to pick up some of the slack.

Dargan, the senior leader, has actually been the star of this year's secondary with 82 tackles and six interceptions.

"The skill set is good," Pellum said of his defensive backs. "The difference is Ifo has so much experience. That's the drop-off to me."

The injury to Ekpre-Olomu, of course, is more than a strategic, schematic loss. It is also familial, and emotional.

"Kind of a heartbreaker," defensive lineman DeForest Buckner explained. "I felt sad for him, it's a hard thing for him to go through."

Oregon can no longer look to Ekpre-Olomu for interceptions. It can look to him for inspiration and pray that, come Thursday, some of his spirit rubs off on whoever is assigned to cover Rashad Greene.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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