Ducks prepare for big stage against K-State
With the inexplicable 17-14 loss to Stanford behind them, seniors on the Oregon football team want to go out in a blaze of glory in the desert, beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl in their fourth consecutive BCS game to finish 46-7 during their careers as Ducks.
What could have been? Sure, it'll be with the seniors and UO coach Chip Kelly for the rest of their lives, how the Ducks went being the best team in the country to out of the BCS title chase on one bad offensive day of football, Nov. 17.
"Stanford beat us, everybody else won out, but it's still an honor and blessing to play in a BCS game," says Michael Clay, one of six seniors who will be playing in their fourth consecutive BCS game, Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl. "Four in a row is kind of unheard of."
Actually, Miami, USC and Ohio State have appeared in four or more consecutive BCS games, but the Ducks have been the hottest program in recent years.
Oregon broke through last year, beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, after previous defeats in the Rose Bowl (Ohio State) and BCS title game (Auburn). So, Kelly hopes to even his BCS record at 2-2, to go along with potentially running his UO record to 46-7.
Along for the ride and doing the playing of the games have been several seniors. The six who are planning to play in their fourth BCS game in a row: Clay, defensive end Dion Jordan, running back Kenjon Barner, punter Jackson Rice, kicker Rob Beard and long snapper Jeff Palmer.
Clay and Rice are four-year seniors, the others five-year.
Fellow senior Kiko Alonso, a linebacker, did not play in the BCS title game but will be playing in his third BCS game. Another senior, Nick Cody, also missed the BCS championship game and won't be at the Fiesta Bowl because he failed to meet the NCAA academic requirements to play in a bowl game.
Safety John Boyett would have been the lone four-year starting player to appear in four consecutive BCS games, had he not missed almost the entire season with an injury.
Offensive lineman Carson York would have played in his fourth BCS game in a row, as well, had he not been sidelined most of the year with an injury.
So, it's pretty exclusive company six guys playing in four BCS games, as part of a senior class that goes down in UO history.
"Just the record alone says a lot about what they've done," says Marcus Mariota, redshirt freshman quarterback. "They've done an unbelievable job of leading us, especially myself when I first came here. To get that (winning) mentality ... you want to win one for the seniors, win for that group of guys to really show what they've done. They've built a foundation for future generations."
It's too early to be sentimental, Beard says.
"We can't think about that right now," he says. "We've just got to get work done and enjoy every moment. In the back of our minds, we know it's coming to an end."
Says Barner, who, like many graduated seniors (criminology degree), will not return to Eugene following the bowl game: "You become so close to people out here, you develop basically family. It's weird to leave. But, it's an adjustment. It's life."
Cody has a couple classes left to finish his double major of journalism and cinema studies. So, he'll be back in Eugene, but done with football.
"You don't let (sentimentality) seep into your preparations," he says. "We're so focused on the task at hand.
"When you sit back and think, 'It's going to be my last game,' it's sad, but everything we've said we were going to accomplish as a freshman class we've accomplished. We set some goals, we didn't think we could 'cash those checks.' We said we'd go to Rose Bowls, win Rose Bowls, compete for national championships. We really had the goal of upping the tier of this program."
Indeed, for the third consecutive year, the UO senior class set the record for most wins in any four-year stretch in UO history 45, with a game to play.
It stands to reason that the seniors will miss one another and others within the program. Move back home or away from Eugene, and leave teammates and friends ... they can stay in touch with texts, emails and phone calls, but it's not the same as seeing people every day.
Clay and Rice, the only four-year seniors among the UO senior class, live together. Of course they're going to miss each other.
"I'm definitely going to miss the class I came in with, we had a great bond Taylor Hart, Ryan Hagen, Boseko Lokombo, Dustin Haines," says Clay, who's completed work on his family human services degree. "I'll definitely miss those guys. We've had great times, really bonded the past couple months. I'm trying to look at the positives and have a great time with everybody."
Barner also has befriended sophomore Dior Mathis, a cornerback. He's gonna miss his buddy.
"My boy Dior ... that's, like, my little brother," Barner says. "Since he's been here, he's been under my wing. I spend a lot of time with him; he reminds me of me with my older brothers.
"As far as fellow seniors, I'll miss everybody. We started together, back in 2008. I'll miss all those guys. It'll be different not being in each other's company every day."
Alonso often hangs out with Clay, his longtime buddy from the San Francisco Bay Area, and Rice. He'll walk into their apartment and want to play video games or watch Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view. There's a chance Clay and Alonso could train together for the pros, but who knows?
"It's been a lot of fun" to play alongside Clay, says Alonso, who's completed his sociology degree requirements. "It's been awesome being here with him."
Rice says he bonded with Clay because both played as true freshmen in 2009. But the bond extends to all of the fourth- and fifth-year guys on the team, he says, whether they be seniors or redshirt juniors.
"It's been a real special class of guys," Rice says. "It's not just seniors. It's the entire team. We're such a family. We do everything together. It's a great group."
Beard remembers the redshirt players in 2008 living in Barnhart Hall together he and Cody, Palmer and Jordan and others.
"From there, going through all the years doing things with each other so many experiences," he says. "We're continuing to have fun. Hopefully we stay in contact for the rest of our lives."
The seniors have their share of memories.
Barner says the first Rose Bowl, in which he had 227 all-purpose yards, stands out, as does the feeling in the locker room after the Ducks beat Andrew Luck's Stanford Cardinal last season. Big win, and "the team atmosphere was amazing; it's something that you'll only experience once in a lifetime," he says. Interestingly, the next week, USC beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium talk about a high to a low, but "you just have to be the best team on that day," Barner adds. "That's just football."
Victory can be hard to achieve, even for players who have enjoyed it 45 times. Clay says the Ducks persevering to beat Wisconsin in the second half of last season's Rose Bowl will always stick with him. Clay had the pivotal fumble recovery late in the game; his buddy, Alonso, had a key interception in the second half as well.
"Great memories, probably live with them forever," Clay says. "Playing with Kiko, being comfortable with each other, trying to make plays, we're in our home state, family there ..."
Adds Jackson: "Getting that win, especially losing the previous two (BCS) games ... such a relief. All this weight off your shoulders. And, getting a chance to get another (win) is awesome." He also says playing in the BCS title game, and running a fake punt "was a lot of fun."
More so, Jordan remembers everything that went into the 45 previous wins.
"Mainly just the preparation that led to where we are," he says. "We've been consistent since Coach Kelly has been here. It's been wonderful to watch guys grow and mature, and everybody being on the same page and having the common goal. Consistency that's a credit to the guys. The only way to make it to the big (BCS) game is to work hard throughout the year."
Palmer has been in the middle of two plays that turned Oregon's seasons both missed Alejandro Maldonado field goals, against USC last season and against Stanford Nov. 17. Palmer had nice snaps, and Rice nice holds, but Maldonado missed the kicks.
"It's bad it had to come down to that, because Al's blamed way more than he should be," says Palmer, who shares Beard and Rice's goal of wanting to boot a big field goal in the Fiesta Bowl. The threesome combined for a field goal in the BCS title game against Auburn.
And, the Palmer and Rice relationship extended to off-field activities. Many, many days the two could be found on the golf course together.
So, what does the future hold?
Well, a lot of UO seniors will get their chance with NFL teams, with Jordan, Alonso, Clay and Barner somewhat coveted, and likely to be drafted. One would think Rice, a Ray Guy Award finalist last season, would get an NFL opportunity.
Barner says watching LaMichael James' early success with the San Francisco 49ers emboldens him, not that he needed to be emboldened to play at the next level.
"As an athlete and somebody who believes in himself, you've got to believe you can do it, until it's proven otherwise," says Barner, who wants to work on his strength, lateral movement, quickness and speed, or "everything."
Clay admits to being somewhat "nervous" about "stepping out in the real world." He says: "You're back on the bottom of the totem pole. But you can't be too nervous. You want to be out there with a calm inside, make a great first impression on everyone."
Jordan could be the highest drafted Duck, a potential first-rounder. He's 6-7, 240 pounds, a tenacious hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He reminds of San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith big, fast and elusive.
"I can play both (positions)," Jordan says. "I can play with my hand on the ground (at D-end), and for our defense, I played outside linebacker. Depends on the scenario in the game." Jordan, who needs to finish three classes for a degree, adds that he could gain some weight to compete in the NFL.
"I've enjoyed my time here," he says. "I'm looking forward to moving to the next level."
Palmer says watching Jordan evolve has been the most striking thing in his five years in Eugene from a skinny receiver to a fearsome defensive end.
"Dion and I are really close," Palmer says. "We lived in the dorms with Dewitt Stuckey, Scott Grady, Garrett Embry ... we were a close-knit group."
Now, Jordan is facing an NFL future. Palmer, like many college players, is facing some unknowns. The 5-10, 185-pounder plans to apply to law schools, hopefully being accepted to Oregon's.
"I'm going to move down to San Francisco. My friend's dad owns a couple restaurants, and I plan to work there until I figure out where I'll be going to (law) school," he says. "Yeah, it's kind of a slap in the face the real world. But with law school, might as well stay in school for as long as possible."