LOS ANGELES — Just when it seemed Oregon's defense was peaking at the perfect time, with Jameis Winston and Florida State on the horizon, an injury took away the Ducks' best defensive back.
Second-ranked Oregon (12-1) will face the third-seeded Seminoles (13-0) on Jan. 1 in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Rose Bowl without All-America cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee during practice this month and needed season-ending surgery.
Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said Sunday the game plan doesn't change with redshirt freshman Chris Seisay stepping into Ekpre-Olomu's starting spot. Florida State offensive coordinator Randy Sanders wondered whether that would actually be the case. The senior from Chino Hills, California, is a talented and experienced player who could be used in a variety of ways.
For the Ducks, who played their best defensive game of the season in a 51-13 victory against Arizona in the Pac-12 title game, stopping Winston without Ekpre-Olomu will be their toughest challenge yet.
“Not having Ifo, we lose a very talented player,” Pellum said, “but we lose kind of a spiritual leader there, a guy with a lot of experience, a guy that's been in the battle, the heat of the battle. So, we all have to pick up the slack.”
Cornerback Troy Hill and safety Erick Dargan said Ekpre-Olomu has kept in contact with his teammates with frequent text messages.
“It hurts, but Ifo is a strong individual and he kind of makes sure everybody's not feeling sorry for him because he's not feeling sorry for himself,” Dargan said. “It's all about the next man up.”
Hill said Ekpre-Olomu hopes to join his teammates for the game.
Even before the latest and most severe injury to Ekpre-Olomu, he was one of several Oregon players who had either been hampered by nagging injuries or missed games altogether this season.
The upside of Ekpre-Olomu's earlier injuries is they gave Seisay and senior Dior Mathis more game and practice time. Seisay has played in 11 games and made 20 tackles. Dior has played in 13 games and has four passes defended.
“All that playing time, we look at them as veterans and we expect them to be able to perform in the game,” said Hill, a senior.
But facing Winston is another matter.
The sophomore's production was down from his record-breaking Heisman season in 2013, and he has already thrown more interceptions (17) in 13 games this season than he did in 14 games (10) last year while leading Florida State to a national title.
Still, the Seminoles have yet to lose a game he has started (26-0). While Winston's mistakes have put Florida State in some deep holes, he's also a big reason why the 'Noles have erased five halftime deficits and won seven games decided by one score. Winston's passer rating in the fourth quarter is 167.04, by far his best of any quarter.
“A lot of quarterbacks throw an interception or two and they don't want to throw the ball (again), and you can tell they don't want to throw the ball,” Dargan said. “With Jameis he's like, I don't care I'm still going to throw the ball. My team needs me.”
All the turnovers, slow starts, and come-from-behind victories have made this season so different for Winston than last, when things seemed to come easy for him and Florida State.
“I've never had a season like this, but it's good to have a season like this,” he said. “I think it actually makes me better as a quarterback because things are not always going good and when you get to the next level or even in life, when things are not going your way, you just can't hide up under a rock.”
Winston's favorite receiver this season has been senior Rashad Greene, a second-team All-American with 93 catches, 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns.
If Ekpre-Olomu was healthy, there's a good chance he would have spent a lot of time matching up against Greene. Maybe.
“It looked like some games he played one side. Some games he kind of moved around from one side to the other,” Sanders said. “He also played in nickel in some situations where he was inside.
“How they would have used him against us would have been one of the things we'd have had to identify early in the game.”
Now the challenge for Florida State will be figuring out how Oregon will try to compensate for Ekpre-Olomu's loss.
“I expect them to do a lot of the same things,” Sanders said. “There's no question whoever they put in the game is going to be good.”