Classmates expect to play big for each other until the end

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota scrambles for a first down during the Ducks win over Oregon State in last months Civil War game. The freshman will direct the attack in next weeks Fiesta Bowl. EUGENE — 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.

“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 at Glendale, Ariz. “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.

Clay, defensive end Dion Jordan, running back Kenjon Barner, punter Jackson Rice, kicker Rob Beard and long snapper Jeff Palmer are about to play in their fourth BCS bowl game in a row.

Clay and Rice are fourth-year seniors, the others are in their fifth years.

Senior Kiko Alonso, a linebacker, did not play in the BCS title game two years ago, but he 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 starter to appear in four consecutive BCS games had he not missed almost this entire season with an injury.

Offensive lineman Carson York would be playing in his fourth BCS game in a row, as well, had he not been sidelined most of the year with an injury.

“They’ve done an unbelievable job of leading us, especially myself when I first came here,” redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota says of the seniors. “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.”

Beard says it’s too early for the senior group to get sentimental.

“We’ve just got to get work done and enjoy every moment,” he says. “In the back of our minds, we know it’s coming to an end.”

Barner, like many graduated seniors (criminology degree), won’t return to Eugene after the bowl game.

“You become so close to people out here, you develop basically family. It’s weird to leave,” he says. “But it’s an adjustment. It’s life.”

Roommates Clay and Rice are going to miss each other.

“I’m definitely going to miss the class I came in with,” says Clay, who has completed work on his family human services degree. “We had a great bond — Taylor Hart, Ryan Hagen, Boseko Lokombo, Dustin Haines. 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 will miss sophomore cornerback Dior Mathis.

“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. It’ll be different not being in each other’s company every day.”

Alonso often hangs out with Clay, his longtime buddy from the 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 train together for the pros, but who knows?

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.

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 says. “That’s just football.”

Victory can be hard to achieve, even for players who have enjoyed it 45 times. Clay says 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. 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 after 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.”

Jackson 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 wins.

“Mainly just the preparation that led to where we are,” he says. “We’ve been consistent since Coach (Chip) 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. 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.

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. Rice, a Ray Guy Award finalist last season, also could 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 “everything” — including strength, lateral movement, quickness and speed.

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.

Palmer says watching Jordan evolve — from skinny receiver to fearsome defensive end — has been the most striking thing in his five years in Eugene.

“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.”

Palmer, like many college players, is facing some unknowns. The 5-10, 185-pounder plans to apply to law schools, and he hopes to be accepted at Oregon.

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