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Duck seniors get one more trip through tunnel

EUGENE — The first member of Oregon’s senior class to run through the tunnel into Autzen Stadium was Hamani Stevens, who redshirted as a freshman in 2008 under coach Mike Bellotti before taking a two-year church mission.

The last to make that memorable sprint behind the motorcycle was Johnathan Loyd, the basketball star who stuck around school to live out his football dream for one season this year under Mark Helfrich.

In between those two, 15 other seniors took the field at Oregon for both Helfrich and Chip Kelly and stayed to make one last entrance this Saturday when the third-ranked Ducks (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) host Colorado (2-8, 0-7) at 1:30 p.m. in the home finale.

“It’s everything,” senior linebacker Derrick Malone said of the run onto the field. “A dark tunnel. You’re about to run into a stadium that’s loud and rocking, so it gives you chills. You anticipate what’s on the other side. What color are the fans wearing? What will the atmosphere be like? Nothing can ever describe it. Once we leave this place, that will be one of the most important things I remember, running through the tunnel with the boys I do battle with.”

The majority of the class is made up of 13 fifth-year seniors who helped the Ducks go 31-3 on their home field. They arrived the year Oregon played in the BCS national championship game, although only kicker Eric Solis played that year.

Two others, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and offensive tackle Jake Fisher, played as true freshmen in 2011 and bring a 25-3 home record into Saturday.

The group has won at least five home games every year, including a 49-31 victory against UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game in 2011; a thrilling come-from-behind, 36-35 victory in last year’s Civil War and a 46-27 victory over seventh-ranked Michigan State in September.

“There’s too many. I can’t really pick one specific moment,” Ekpre-Olomu said of his most memorable game. “I think definitely the first time you step on the field, it’s a great opportunity playing in front of 50,000 after being in high school. It’s a dream come true.”

The seniors have never lost more than one home game in a season, although the 38-35 loss to USC in 2011 and 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford in 2012 were painful, ending Oregon’s national title hopes both years.

The only other defeat, 31-24 game to Arizona this October, threatened to derail another national title run, but largely thanks to the resilience of the senior class the Ducks are back in the race with three games remaining before the inaugural College Football Playoff.

“It’s crazy because you never realize how fast it’s going to come,” senior cornerback Troy Hill said. “You sit back and watch everyone else go through their moments, and now it’s ours. We had a good run out here. A lot of good times and some bad through it all, but a lot of memories.”

The senior class includes a handful of certain NFL draft picks, including center Hroniss Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu, as well as some who went under the radar during their career, like linebackers Mike Garrity and Isaac Ava.

Linebacker Grant Thompson, who followed his brother, Blake, and father, Bill, as an Oregon football player, played four years without a scholarship before earning one for his final season, along with running back Kenny Bassett.

With an expected blowout victory against Colorado coming up, each of the seniors might take the field Saturday except for Grasu, who started all 50 games in his career before injuring his knee two weeks ago against Utah, making his final home game his first absence from the field.

“Going out that tunnel one last time is going to be something very special,” Grasu said. “All I can do is enjoy the day and just focus on the game. I’ll do whatever I can for the guys, get them going and do whatever I can to be a part of the game and help them win.”

Grasu is one of nine seniors who have been regular starters for the Ducks, but if Helfrich wanted, he could do what basketball coaches have done for years and start every senior.

Fisher and Stevens will start on the offensive line, Loyd could join Lowe as a starter at wide receiver, and Bassett and Ayele Forde could line up in a two-back set for the Ducks.

The defense would have to be more creative, with five linebackers featuring Garrity, Thompson, Ava, Malone and Tony Washington while cornerbacks Ekpre-Olomu, Hill, and Dior Mathis join safety Erick Dargan in the secondary. Solis could handle the opening kickoff or extra point.

The Ducks would still have room to start quarterback Marcus Mariota and defensive lineman Arik Armstead, juniors who could be making their final home appearance before leaving early for the NFL.

“I’ve made a lot of close friends in the senior class, a lot of guys I really look up to,” Mariota said. “It will be bittersweet, obviously, at the same time it’s one of those experiences you come back to school for and you get to enjoy. To see those guys go off as one of the most successful classes in Oregon history will be pretty cool.”

All of the seniors spent their entire career with the Ducks; there are no transfers in the class. Loyd is the only one who didn’t spend either four or five years in the program.

There has not been a meaningless home game in the past five years, and the Ducks have been ranked in the top 12 in the nation and played in front of a sellout crowd every time the seniors have stepped on the field.

“It’s been like that every year for us,” Hill said. “Every time we send the seniors out, we want to send them out on top. It’s the same thing now, I want to go out on top.”

That remains a possibility for the seniors who arrived in time to watch the Ducks play for a national title and now hope to leave in the same spot.

“We’ve been through it all,” Malone said. “Our first year was the Natty (national championship game) and we had to sit out, and now we have a great opportunity to make history here. ...

“Having our last home game is bittersweet, but we know we have to get the win and put all we have into it. Make it one to remember because this is our last chance to ever play here. Even if we come back and coach someday, this will be the last time we run out of that tunnel as players. It will be an emotional day.”