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Can Ducks pick up the pieces?

Players vow to put OT loss to Stanford behind them


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Oregon's defense forces a third-quarter fumble and Stanford turnover at Autzen Stadium.EUGENE — All fall everything had been going right for the Oregon Ducks.

Heading into Saturday’s game against Stanford, Oregon was 10-0 and the No. 2 BCS team in the nation.

During the game, things continued going Oregon’s way. Yes, their offense was stifled by the hardnosed Cardinal defense. But every break that could go Oregon’s way did. Stanford turned the ball over three times, once inside the Ducks' 20-yard line. And, with less than two minutes to play, Oregon was up 14-7.

Then, fortune proved what a cruel lover she can be.

Oregon gave up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kevin Hogan to Zach Ertz with 1:35 remaining. After the PAT, the score was tied 14-14.

In overtime, the Ducks offense took the ball first. The drive stalled and kicker Alejandro Maldonado came on to attempt a 41-yard field goal. Maldonado put the ball off the left upright, missing for the second time in two tries during the game.

“I had a great week of practice,” Maldonado said. “The results didn’t come. I’m just very disappointed.”

With the Cardinal already in field-goal range when they took over the ball on the 25, the Oregon defense knew it needed a miracle.

“It was in overtime,” said cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. “If they get a field goal, they win the game. We were talking about stripping the ball the whole time.”

The Ducks nearly got their miracle.

On second down, Hogan dropped back to pass. He was hit it the backfield by middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. The ball popped loose. It spun on the ground for what seemed an eternity. Ekpre-Olomu and linebacker Michael Clay both dove for it. Neither player was able to grab onto the ball, and Stanford recovered.

“I got into the pile late, and when Mike put his hand out, it (the ball) went to the other side,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “Their lineman was able to get underneath and get the ball.”

Two plays later, Jordan Williamson knocked in a 37-yard field goal, and Stanford had a 17-14 win at Autzen Stadium.

The Ducks had lost the game. They had lost their spot in the national title game. And, baring a Stanford loss to UCLA next week, Oregon has lost the opportunity to play in the Pac-12 championship game.

“We were so close to getting that fumble, but it didn’t go our way,” defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “The ball bounces funny. Why didn’t we get the last fumble? We had it in our hands. We didn’t get it?”

After the game, Oregon coach Chip Kelly desperately wished that he could find words to say to his players that would take away the suffering of the loss. No words could accomplish that task.

“From my situation, you’d love to have some words that can take the pain out of it. But there aren’t any,” Kelly said. “It’s tough. Things aren’t always going to go your way. That’s life. That’s football. That’s what it’s all about. I don’t fault them for their effort. It hurts so bad because they’ve invested so much as a group.”

Now Oregon must pick its season up from the ashes. The Ducks must try to find the strength to forge ahead in next week’s noon Civil War game (Pac-12 Networks) at Oregon State, even knowing how much they very well may have lost Saturday night.

Kelly said he looks at it as the greatest test of the season for Oregon.

“We’ll find out more about this football team when we get to practice on Monday and see how we handle this situation," he said. "They’ve handled success. Now it’s the first time they’ve faced adversity. We’ll see where we are. I’m confident in us, but it hurts. You’ll feel really bad for a little bit of time, but we’ll bounce back from it.”

Aliotti said that young college football players are more capable of dealing with a loss of such magnitude than coaches.

“Kids are pretty resilient,” Aliotti said. “They actually probably do a better job than us older guys. The kids will hurt tonight and hurt Sunday. Monday will be a little bit different of a day. But it’s the Civil War, we’re 10-1 and we lost in overtime to a good football team.”

Running back De’Anthony Thomas did not come into the postgame press conference wearing an expression of defeat. Not at all, actually.

“I feel good,” Thomas said, actually smiling. “A loss doesn’t really mean anything. We still have a lot more to accomplish. This loss doesn’t faze anyone. We’ve still got another game to play. We’ve still got to come out Monday and work hard.”

Quarterback Marcus Mariota said that he and the rest of his teammates will view Monday’s practice the same as they have viewed every practice throughout the season.

“We have a 24-hour policy,” Mariota said. “You can’t mope about it. You have to learn. We’re awaiting the challenge on Monday. We’re going to take it one day at a time like we always have. Our mentality doesn’t change. We’re just going to come back on Monday.”

The odds of going to the national championship game, or even the Pac-12 championship game are no longer in Oregon’s favor. But, neither players nor coaches are willing to believe that all hope is lost.

“For all you know, everyone could lose and we’re back in the hunt,” Clay said.

Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich bristled at the assertion that the Ducks no longer have a chance to play for a national title.

“Knowing what’s going on in college football, I would say that statement is probably not true,” Helfrich said. “It’s really hard to win a game, let alone 10 in a row, or 11 in a row, or 12 in a row. Anything can happen. We’ll focus on what we can do and let the chips fall.”

Waiting to see how chips fall is the occupation of men who depend on fortune. Saturday night fortune turned her back on Oregon. Now, all the Ducks are able to do is hope that she will once again smile upon them.

“We’re going to practice every day like we’re playing for the national championship because that’s what’s going to make you the best team you can be,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “Every single day you have something to play for. If it comes our way then we’ll be ready.”