When Montario Hardesty caught the pass from Erik Ainge, Ezeff was seven yards off of him and charging. By the time the big running back could turn and head upfield, he was wrapped by Cal's sophomore safety and dropped for a three-yard loss. The Volunteers were forced to punt, and the Bear offense doused the dying embers of Tennessee's hope with a long drive that essentially secured the victory.
For the 6-0, 194 pound Ezeff, the game was easily his finest as a Golden Bear. After seeing spot duty last year, he had six tackles on Saturday, while seeing lots of playing time in Cal's five defensive backs set.
After patiently waiting for his opportunity, Ezeff was happy to be able to contribute.
"It meant a lot," said Ezeff. "This year I wanted to step up my intensity and become a leader in the secondary. This is my third year here so I've got higher expectations for myself and also for the team."
Although every football team will have its share of stars and instant impact players, you'll find its soul within the players who arrive as touted high school players but spend two, three, and sometimes four years of work, pushing themselves to build their bodies, learn the game, persevere through pain, set examples for younger players and develop a trust with their teammates that extend on and off the field.
Ezeff, a three-star recruit in the Class of 2005, was one of the top high school players in the Bay Area coming out of Santa Rosa's Montgomery High School. He helped lead the team to a 13-0 record, the CIF North Coast Section 3A Championship, and was named to the San Francisco Chronicle all-metro first team as defensive back and a wide receiver.
For some players that were able to dominate in high school on sheer talent alone, coming to play college football where everyone is physically gifted and the competition for playing time is intense can catch them by surprise. While everybody believes that they're capable of playing at a high level, the process of fulfilling those expectations doesn't comes easily.
Ezeff acknowledges that the transition was necssary, if not altogether smooth.
"I've matured a lot," said Ezeff, who redshirted during the 2005 season. "Coming out of a high school I was used to getting a lot of attention around my area. But coming here, everyone's skill level is high and I've learned to work hard at everything from the weight room to the classroom to the practice field. During my three years here, I've grown a lot."
Currently listed on the two-deep as the second string rover behind Bernard Hicks, Ezeff, who saw plenty of time with the first unit on Saturday, credits defensive coordinator Bob Gregory for his guidance.
"Coach Gregory has helped me work through a lot of things," said Ezeff, who's an African-American studies major. "He's like a dad. It's great to have a coach that you can go to and trust, who's easy to talk to and understands what his players go through."
Ezeff also credits Gregory and the defensive coaching staff for implementing a game plan that was intent on making Tennessee work for their yardage.
"They're a great team," said Ezeff, whose family routinely comes down from Santa Rosa to cheer him on. "They were ranked 15th in the country and we knew they'd make some plays. We really had to understand our assignments and keep the number of big plays down. We had to not allow big plays, not allow big throws and not miss our tackles. Coach Gregory disguised blitzes and it confused their offense. They were checking down, but a lot of times, they were running right into our zones."
Although the Bears defense did hold the high-powered Volunteer offense under 400 yards and did have several big plays last Saturday, there's still a lot of room for improvement.
"We need to do a lot more work," said Ezeff. "Every team that wants to play for a championship tries to get better as the season goes on. We've put the Tennessee game behind us and we're not looking past Colorado State. We're going into to it knowing that it's going to be a battle."
Having played in 12 games last season, he wasn't awestruck playing in front of a large crowd, but was happy with the edge it provided.
"The crowd's a big help to our success and helps us play to our capability," said Ezeff. "We were feeding off their energy."
While Memorial Stadium's boisterious fans certainly helped, the seeds for the decisive fourth quarter where the Bears dominated time of possession (10:44 to 4:16) and yardage (171 to 2), were planted during the spring and summer.
"We kept hearing about how strong Tennessee was," said Ezeff. "But our strength and conditioning coach (John Krasinski) and coach Tedford pushed us to becoming the most well-conditioned team we can be. We've worked hard and we're a well-conditioned as any team out there."
So what goes through a player's mind when he makes a big third-down, fourth-quarter stop in front of not just a sell-out crowd, but a national television audience, as well?
"I thought about what coach Tedford told us the night before the game," said Ezeff, who after his hit, was greeted by a couple of teammates, but carried himself as if this was something he expected to do. "All that we'd heard about the SEC being more powerful and how they thought they'd overpower us. We fed off of that and what he said made us want to go out there and show what this team is about. I thought about everything we went through all summer, from waking up at 6:30 a.m. and going through all that training. And also about how the defense wanted to make big plays, and get the Pac-10 to get some recognition."
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