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No NFL regrets for Mariota, Grasu, Ekpre-Olomu

EUGENE — It has been nearly a year since Oregon’s Big Three made The Decision.

Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu could all have taken their talents to the NFL.

Instead, the popular team leaders chose to return to school to finish their degrees and play one more season together with the Ducks.

It hasn’t been perfect. Football never is.

Mariota was sacked five times during another painful loss to Arizona. Grasu’s streak of consecutive starts ended at 50 after he suffered a lower-leg injury. Ekpre-Olomu was picked on a little bit in Pullman and also limped off the field in Salt Lake City.

The talented trio said there are no regrets at the table this Thanksgiving.

“It’s been worth every second of it,” Mariota said. “It’s been an opportunity to kind of continue to build lifelong relationships and be a part of a team that’s special.”

The Ducks (10-1 overall, 7-1 Pac-12) enter Saturday’s Civil War ranked No. 2 by the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Since Scooby Wright strip-sacked Mariota to secure the Wildcats’ stunning 31-24 upset at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 2, Oregon is 6-0 with an average margin of victory of 25.4 points.

Mariota has thrown 17 touchdowns and two interceptions during the streak, breaking every meaningful career passing record at Oregon along the way.

Grasu helped solidify an offensive line that has dealt with injuries every week and still paved the way for true freshman Royce Freeman to rush for 1,050 yards and 16 touchdowns.

“We’ve faced adversity, and you’re never going to go throughout a season and not face some adversity with injuries,” Grasu said. “Losing a game early in the year, we’ve been able to overcome that. Every single day has been a lot of fun. It has been a pleasure to be around these guys.”

Oregon’s defense appeared to be a liability during the early transition to a new coordinator. Ekpre-Olomu and other prominent upperclassmen have helped the unit commit fewer mental errors and create more turnovers as the season has wore on.

Don Pellum’s defense now ranks second in the Pac-12 in points allowed (23.6 ppg).

“So far, so good,” Ekpre-Olomu said of his final collegiate campaign. “We’ve taken everything that has come to us and haven’t really thought of anything outside of the season or the process. I think that’s why we’ve been successful so far this season.”

On Tuesday, Ekpre-Olomu, an All-American cornerback in 2013, was named as one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award. An Oregon player has never won the hardware handed out to the nation’s top defensive back.

“Dream come true,” Ekpre-Olomu said. “You’re one of three finalists for an award as the top player at your position. It’s an honor being nominated for it, and I’ll have to finish the season strong if I want to be the first one to bring it back to Oregon.”

Before the season, Oregon reimbursed the families of Mariota, Grasu, Ekpre-Olomu and defensive end Arik Armstead for out-of-pocket expenses related to the purchase of insurance policies for loss of future earnings in the event of injury.

It looked like Grasu might have to cash his policy in after he was injured at Utah on Nov. 8. Even though he was on crutches during last week’s 44-10 victory over Colorado and is still getting around on a medical scooter, the all-American center insists he will be healthy enough to play for the Ducks again this season.

“I’m getting better every single day, I haven’t had any setbacks,” Grasu said. “I’m ahead of where I thought I was going to be.”

Grasu said he wouldn’t have been emotional last Saturday at Autzen Stadium if he had been suited up. Watching Ekpre-Olomu and the other seniors play at home for the final time, and then Mariota receive a standing ovation in the fourth quarter, got to the big guy.

But the ride is far from over.

Oregon plays Oregon State on Saturday at Reser Stadium (5 p.m., ABC) and in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 5 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. (6 p.m., Fox).

“We’re not done yet,” Grasu said. “We’ve got a big one this Saturday. That’s all that matters right now.”

If Mariota is able to lead the Ducks to two more wins, the record-setting quarterback could be the program’s first Heisman Trophy winner ahead of an appearance in the first college football final four.

Whatever happens, the 2014 season has already been quite an encore performance.

“It’s been a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything else in the world,” Mariota said. “It’s been great and I’m very thankful for it.”