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Ekpre-Olomu looks to define No. 2 Ducks’ defense

EUGENE — Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s acrobatic interception against Michigan State perfectly illustrated his reason for staying at Oregon. The senior cornerback has more to prove with the Ducks.

Oregon defeated the then-No. 7 Spartans 46-27 last Saturday, pushing the Ducks up a spot in the AP Top 25 to No 2. With the decisive victory over a top-10 team, Oregon became an early favorite for a spot in college football’s first playoff this season.

The highlight reel from the victory over Michigan State will certainly include Ekpre-Olomu’s fourth-quarter interception of Spartans quarterback Connor Cook.

Cook was aiming for AJ Troup on a deep route, but Oregon defensive back Reggie Daniels tipped the ball. Already on the run, Ekpre-Olomu sprinted a few more steps before making the lunging catch and crashing to the turf.

“For some reason I knew that the ball was going to be tipped,” he said. “All of a sudden the ball was just there so I just dove.”

It was his eighth career interception, putting him four away from breaking into the top 10 of Oregon’s all-time list.

Ekpre-Olomu’s interception was a high point for the Ducks’ defense, which had struggled for the first half as Michigan State built a 24-18 lead.

The Ducks — who host Wyoming this Saturday at Autzen Stadium before opening up the conference season at Washington State next weekend — are no doubt happy the two-time all-Pac-12 corner and pro prospect stayed.

“I think there’s a lot that I can do this season. I think I can be an impact player,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m just worried about the process and getting better. I want to be the best player I can be when I leave here. And I want to be the best player I can be every Saturday.”

Oregon’s secondary allowed Cook 343 yards passing and two touchdowns. But the Ducks’ D grew stronger as the game progressed and held the Spartans scoreless in the second half. That’s when the offense took over with four unanswered touchdowns for the win.

“Credit to (defensive coordinator) Don Pellum and our defensive staff for rallying those guys in the second half. Those guys were really good and we knew that Connor Cook made them more balanced and versatile as far as their attack. But I’m just proud of the total team effort,” head coach Mark Helfrich said.

In addition to his work at cornerback, Ekpre-Olomu also is Oregon’s starting punt returner. The job came open in the spring when Bralon Addison injured ligaments in his knee.

Against the Spartans, Ekpre-Olomu returned three punts for 40 yards, with a long of 30, despite nursing an ankle injury that has been lingering since fall camp.

“We’ve just got confidence, whether we are winning or losing,” he said. “They had a lot of momentum going into halftime and we just had to come together as a team. We had the momentum and we were able to just keep putting it on.”

Ekpre-Olomu was the Ducks’ second-leading tackler with 84 last season. He also had three interceptions.

After Oregon capped its season with a victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl, there was speculation that Ekpre-Olomu might bolt for the NFL draft, joining running back De’Anthony Thomas in leaving Oregon with eligibility remaining.

But like quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu, Ekpre-Olomu felt he had one more shot to do something special with the Ducks.

“I definitely wanted to do more while I’m still in college,” he said. “Yes, the NFL is something that I want to do, but I mean this is a one-time opportunity. I wanted to finish what I started when I got here.”

Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu defends against Washington last season. The senior cornerback skipped a chance to jump to the NFL after last year. AP PHOTO