PASADENA, Calif. -- At this point, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu has learned to ignore the haters.
Then, after a loss, lots of those fans hop off the bandwagon. That happened last week when the Ducks fell 31-24 to unranked Arizona, which has become a repeated stumbling block in Oregon’s path to a national title. As fans piled off they called for coach Mark Helfrich’s head, lamenting that life would never be as it once was under former coach Chip Kelly. Then, the Ducks limped into Pasadena … and promptly put themselves right back into the College Football Playoff conversation.
This game wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. The Bruins had no answer for quarterback Marcus Mariota, who passed for 210 yards and ran for another 75, including a nifty fumble/dribble to himself on second-and-10 early in the third quarter that he scooped up and ran with 23 yards to the end zone. They couldn’t stop true freshman tailback Royce Freeman, who averaged 6.7 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns. UCLA’s defensive line couldn’t get any pressure on Mariota, recording zero sacks. The Ducks cruised to a 42-10 lead early in the fourth before relaxing just enough for UCLA to make the final margin look respectable. But it’s a win for Oregon, and one that effectively eliminates UCLA from the playoff picture.
Last Thursday the sky was falling in Eugene. But by the time Sunday morning rolled around, the Ducks were just one five top-10 teams to fall. After one of the most chaotic Saturdays in college football history, followed by one of Oregon’s best wins in last two years (remember that Saturday’s Oregon-UCLA game was still a matchup between top-20 teams), Ekpre-Olomu is sure of a few things.
“When you’re a top team, you’re gonna get people’s best every week,” he said. “And when we show up and do what we do, we’re really good, and other teams have to look out for us.
“We have to sustain that now.”
Sustaining it in this conference, though, could be a lot harder than anticipated. Billed in the preseason as the country's deepest league, the Pac-12 is, to put it nicely, a complete mess. There’s more parity in the conference than ever before, and as commissioner Larry Scott said Saturday afternoon at halftime, there are no more “gimmes” on the schedule. (That seemed to be a direct reference to the 2013 versions of Cal and Colorado, even if Scott is too diplomatic to call them out by name.)
As commissioner of a Power Five conference, Scott likes and wants depth in his corner of the college football world. But he admitted depth could be problematic when the selection committee sits down in December. Already Pac-12 teams have shown a tendency to beat up on each other -- Cal led the North division entering this weekend, for crying out loud -- and an elite team has not emerged.
If Oregon gets healthy, though, it is perfectly positioned to become that elite team.
When he is given time in the pocket to make reads, Mariota boasts a brilliance that is undeniable. The Ducks can ride him to a Pac-12 title game appearance provided the line continues to open holes for the backs. The return of left tackle Jake Fisher, who missed the last two games with a left leg injury, certainly provides a boost. He helped pave the way for the Ducks to run for 258 yards Saturday.
It will help if the defense makes an occasional big stop. For example, Oregon stuffed UCLA for a one-yard loss on third-and-two in the second quarter. The Bruins settled for a 41-yard field goal attempt, which Ka’imi Fairbairn missed.
The Ducks will also need to break their Stanford curse -- they host the Cardinal in Eugene on Nov. 1 -- and get through the rest of the Pac-12 unscathed. It’s likely a handful of one-loss teams will vie for four spots at the end of the season. Scott isn’t worried.
“What I feel good about, if we’ve got teams in the mix with comparable records [to other Power Five schools], it’ll be easy to look anyone in the eye and say, ‘No conference champion has had a tougher road than the Pac-12.’”
Oregon also has the ultimate trump card: It owns the premier nonconference win of the season, a come-from-behind 46-27 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 6.
After the Ducks' loss to Arizona, offensive coordinator Scott Frost received a text message from Kelly. It read, “Praise and blame is all the same.” After the UCLA win, Frost insisted one game doesn’t offer validation. It was just another step.
“Every time you step on the field, it’s going to be a dog fight,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “I don’t think you can play with fear though. You play to excel. Losing doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, but it is tough to pull out of that. We still don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Then, with a smile, Ekpre-Olomu added another truth: The Ducks remain in position to play for the Pac-12 title. He didn’t have to add that if Oregon gets there, it will likely be in contention for more. Everyone knows that -- including the haters.