Posing for pictures and sporting the Mickey Mouse ears, a very special Oregon DB was on a whirlwind adventure with his friend and fellow Duck Marcus Mariota. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, the senior DB for the University of Oregon, was in attendance for the Home Depot College Football Awards at Disneyland. And while Ekpre-Olomu didn’t leave with any trophies, there is no doubt the impact he has had on a defense that has become one of the most dominant in college football over the last half of the season. His 2014 numbers may not reflect the type of “shut down corner” east coast pundits look for when they hand out awards, but Ekpre-Olomu’s season has been eerily similar to another Northwest DB who took a lot of criticism earlier in the year – Seattle Seahawk’s Richard Sherman.
Sherman’s numbers are down from a year ago, where he was stealing passes and breaking up touchdown attempts at an extraordinary pace. After the NFC Championship Game, offensive coordinators and quarterbacks finally gave up testing Sherman, and this couldn’t have been more evident than the Green Bay/Seattle game, where Super Bowl MVP and Packers superstar simply avoided Sherman’s area of the field altogether. This was a statement to the rest of the NFL – if you want to beat Seattle, stay away from Sherman. As a consequence, his numbers declined, and some began to question if he was still the best CB in the NFL. Sometimes, when you are the best, it’s not personal numbers that show it, but the performance of others, especially the whole defensive unit that benefits the most. The “Legion of Boom” is a unit, not just one player, and if you drive 5 hours south of Seattle, to the town of Eugene, Oregon, you’ll find another CB whose stellar play has also been the foundation of a defensive secondary that has evolved to a significantly higher level of play over the last half the Pac-12 conference schedule.
If Sherman’s “don’t throw at me” moment was against the San Francisco 49’ers in the NFC Championship Game, Ekpre-Olomu’s statement was against Michigan State, where his interception sealed the fate of the Spartans, and put the game away for the Ducks. I still don’t know how he caught that ball, and when the top College Football Plays of the Year highlight reel comes out, don’t be surprised if the interception by Ekpre-Olomu leads the Top 10 at number one.
Ekpre-Olomu has been asked to do so much more this year, and while the growth and evolution of Oregon’s defense has been painful at times, the rock has been Ekpre-Olomu. The senior has pushed his play so far above his peers that the standard he has set for the Ducks secondary, and their defense, is unsurpassed. The double-digits wins Oregon’s offense is often regarded for isn’t just a byproduct of the high powered offense; it’s the physical, and speedy defense that keeps the final score reflective of the high quality of play the Oregon excels at week in and week out.
When one player can take away opposing team’s impact players, it changes the entire course of a game – how coordinators call plays, how opposing offenses react, and ultimately what Pellum and the rest of the Oregon defense can do to put their own offense in the best position to win.
Oregon DB Erick Dargan is having an amazing year, as seen not just on game day but in his statistics. He leads Oregon in Total tackles (82), picks (6), and was voted All Pac-12 2nd Team Defense. In a conference that has eight of its twelve quarterbacks passing for over 3,000 yards, Pac-12 secondary units are pushed week in and week out. To contrast the challenges Pac-12 DB’s face each game, the SEC had only three passers over 3,000 yards, the BIG12 had four, the ACC just one (Winston), and the B1G had none. Oregon played eight, yes EIGHT, games against 3,000 yard+ passing teams. And yet, in 75% of those games, Mariota never saw the end of the 4th quarter. When a team’s Heisman candidate QB doesn’t play a full game, it’s not just because of how good the offense is, it’s also because the defense is playing so well Oregon’s opponents just aren’t going to get back into the game, allowing the best player in all of college football to spend his fourth quarters drinking Gatorade and figuring out the easiest way off the field that doesn’t involve media.
For offensive players, the bigger the stats, the more attention you garner. Players like Mariota, Gordon, and Cooper can merely point to a stat sheet and say, “see, that’s what I did,” (although I doubt Mariota has ever looked at his stats, much less cared). And while turnovers, tackles, and stops are vital for a defense, every so often a player is just so impactful that it can’t be reflected on paper. When one player can “chalk off” an entire section of the field, it changes the entire game. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is one of those rare players whose stats can never reflect his impact. His play transcends any analyst’s stat sheet. So, for every interception by Dargan, for every pass break up by Washington, every tackle by Walker and sack by Armstead, the impact of the player on the other side of the field can’t be disregarded. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is more than just a cornerback, he’s a game changer.
Top photo credit: Kevin Cline