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Ducks' secondary gets passing grade

Defense feels loss of Boyett as newcomers are tested


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: GREG WAHL-STEPHENS - Oregon defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (left) and Avery Patterson celebrate a stop in last week's 49-0 home win over Arizona.EUGENE — The Oregon Ducks’ secondary, minus John Boyett, passed its first Pac-12 test with flying colors last week. Oregon shut out Arizona and QB Matt Scott and put its defense on the national map.

So, the Ducks are ready to defend the likes of USC quarterback Matt Barkley and his top receivers, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and the passing games of Washington State, Washington, Arizona State, California and Oregon State?

Yes, says Ducks safety Brian Jackson, who serves as a pretty fair unofficial spokesman for the guys who have to contain opposing receivers.

“If anybody had any question about our secondary, you can use this game as evidence,” Jackson said after the Ducks held Scott to 50 percent passing and intercepted four passes (three thrown by Scott), returning two for touchdowns. “There are no question marks. We feel we’re great out there. As a secondary, we’re a great unit. We always knew we could do something special.”

Cornerback Troy Hill and defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti were much less effuse in their praise of the secondary, which will play Saturday against WSU and the Mike Leach-coached, prolific passing game that includes superstar Marquess Wilson. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

“We have to prove ourselves week in and week out,” said Hill, who joined Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in returning picks for sixes against Arizona.

Said Aliotti: “I’m not ready to ever anoint anybody.”

The secondary was a question mark going into the season, despite the return of free safety John Boyett, the experience of backup safeties Avery Patterson and Jackson, and three cornerbacks who had started (Hill, Ekpre-Olomu, Terrance Mitchell) and a hard-hitting “nickel” safety Erick Dargan. Then Boyett was deemed done for the year, opting for knee surgery after one game in his senior season.

Patterson stepped in at free safety, and the Ducks began their quest for a fourth consecutive Pac-10/Pac-12 titles in fine fashion with their eye-popping 49-0 win at Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks held Arizona to a longest pass play of only 19 yards, blanketing the UA receivers with both man and zone coverage. The Wildcats looked away from Mitchell and targeted the 5-10, 190-pound Ekpre-Olomu, the team’s biggest corner. He covered 6-4, 215 receiver Dan Buckner and picked up two pass- interference penalties, but Buckner managed only three catches for 42 yards.

“Ifo got tested at least five times. I thought he responded well,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.

Said Jackson: “I always had his back, but he didn’t need my help. He’s young, he’s smart, he’s competitive. ... (Scott) had to pick one or the other to go after, and he decided to go after Ifo, and Ifo comes out with a touchdown.”

Ekpre-Olomu, who is from Chino Hills, Calif., said his play “gave me that confidence for the games coming up. Once you make one big play, I feel like I’m able to make a lot of plays.”

The 2012 Ducks have faced decent quarterbacks in Scott, Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin. Oregon ranks third in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed (210.8 per game), third in pass efficiency defense, and second in opponent third-down conversion (21 percent).

“They’re doing a great job of contesting passes,” Kelly said, “a great job of tackling and really understanding what we’re doing; their understanding of the game plan has been really good, so far. They have attention to detail, and always had great effort.”

Boyett has been missed, if nothing else for his presence on the field. He has vowed to stay involved at practices and on the sideline during games.

“I felt like everybody had to step up with his absence,” Patterson said.

“I miss John as a person,” said Aliotti, who helped recruit Boyett from Napa (Calif.) High. “I miss John, and it’s not because we don’t have good enough guys out there. He made it fun. He was a gym rat. He always had a creative defense for me. Always kind of off-the-wall. I like that.

“But I think his spirit was here a little bit (versus Arizona) in those red-zone areas.”

The Ducks turned away seven deep Wildcat penetrations into UO territory.

Patterson “has stepped up a lot,” Hill said. “He’s a vocal leader. The safeties help the corners a lot, with situations and getting lined up. Without Boyett, I feel like it made us become stronger. Boyett taught us a lot.”

Another test comes Saturday in Seattle, against either Washington State quarterback (Connor Halliday or Jeff Tuel) and quality receivers led by premier NFL prospect Wilson. The Cougars are one-dimensional and proud of it.

“We expect them to wing it,” Kelly said. “We expect to see and defend 50 to 60 throws against these guys. They’ve got a lot of guys and spread the ball around.”

Jackson said the Oregon secondary will stick together through the trials and tribulations of the Pac-12 season.

“We all love each other,” he said. “We’re great friends. We know when we’re out there we’re doing it not only for ourselves but for everybody with us.

“We’ve got a great secondary. I love how we play together. It’s going to be a great unit for the rest of the year.”