Saturday, September 29, 2007

SF Chronicle: Heart-stopping play averts heartbreaker of a touchdown

Ray Ratto

Marcus Ezeff knew he was doomed when he felt the Oregon wide receiver bump him and separate him from Duck Cameron Colvin at about the 3-yard line. There are ways to avoid or adjust to pick plays, true, but they are very difficult to react to, especially when the game-tying touchdown and the national rankings picture are about to be defined in a six-second interval.  So Ezeff - Cal's sophomore rover, who had already been flagged for a late hit that set up Oregon's first touchdown and knew he would be fingered for this one as well, did the only thing he could do - ran as hard as he could to catch and hit Colvin before he reached the end zone with what surely would have been Oregon's 30th and 31st points.  And he delivered a hit on Colvin that jarred the ball loose at the 1-yard line and bounced out of bounds in the end zone to seal Cal's nail-bitingest win in the Jeff Tedford era, a 31-24 win over 11th-ranked Oregon that (a) surely elevated Cal to no lower than fourth in today's polls, and quite possibly to third, (b) put them squarely in the national championship debate that has been reserved for LSU and USC, (c) allowed Tedford to unclench his jaw after days of what he called "being on edge, absolutely" ... and (d) saved Ezeff from a sort-of myocardial infarction.

"Yeah, when they (the officials) were reviewing it, I was having kind of a heart attack," he said with a smile. "I thought he'd scored, or they'd have it on the 1-yard line, but then I saw our coaches yelling and making the touchback signal. But the review was taking forever."  We'll get back to the quasi-MI in a moment, but Ezeff's hit deserves a proper set-up. It came at the end of a second half that looked like what America had been promised by these two teams - an absolute offensive punch-out, to be decided by the last fist. True, it came after a first half that looked like Wisconsin-Iowa in a snowstorm, but you can't always get what you want from your bookie. It came at the end of a nine-play, 77-yard Oregon drive that was going to negate the two fourth-quarter interceptions Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon had thrown, as well as the fumbled punt by Andre Crenshaw. It came at the end of a drive that took only a minute, 29 seconds despite Oregon having no time outs. And it came with the entire nation watching, a fact which was lost on nobody in the Cal camp, even though they are hesitant to make much of what will surely be their high ranking.

"Honestly, I don't think we'll have to talk to them much about the national picture stuff," Tedford said as he held dinner in the handy take-home box for him and his wife Donna. "I think this group knows how to handle it." But? "But we will talk to them about it, sure." Of course. The old football coach's creed - never a let a message go delivered fewer than three or four times. That, though, is tomorrow's problem, along with an injury list that includes quarterback Nate Longshore (sprained ankle, X-rays negative, no need to go for the cutlery).

Today is a day for the Bears to celebrate with a canceled practice, and to wait for the polls to validate one of their finest efforts in years. And for Ezeff, the Santa Rosa Montgomery High product whose elevation from scout team wizard to starter was swift enough to give most folks the bends, it is a day to reflect on what must be his most momentous athletic deed ever. "It was a totally illegal play," he said. "I got picked, and all I was trying to do was get back to him and make a play. That's my job. That's what I do. That's how I make my living." In other words: "I was trying to knock his head off."

Instead, as Colvin tried to stretch the ball to the goal line, Ezeff hit his right arm and knocked the ball loose, where it bounced in the end zone just inside the sideline, and then out completely. Line judge Manuel Alonzo threw his bean bag where the fumble occurred, but only started to give a touchback signal (an extended arm waved up and down several times) before running to confer with side judge Bernard Samuels, who gave sort of a dolphin-armed touchback signal before they both ran to confer with referee Jack Wood, who in turn conferred with the replay booth for what seemed like no more than an hour and a half before announcing that yes, the fumble did occur in the field of play, yes it was a touchback, yes Cal would be given the ball, and yes they would survive.

"It was pretty clear to all of us that it had to be a touchback," Tedford said as director of football operations Mike McHugh stood nearby nodding. "But the longer it took, the more you start to wonder if they're going to make the right call. There must have been a TV time out or something, but you start thinking about what happened here last year (where a notoriously bad call and bad replay work cost Oklahoma a win over the Ducks and created a national firestorm of sorts). But fortunately they got it right."

Fortunately for Tedford, to be sure. He tries to keep his keel even, to the point of sometimes coming off as an insurance adjuster in doubleknit shorts, but he was clearly off his feed this week. He wanted this game because he had never beaten his former employers in his former place of employment, because Oregon was the other candidate for prince regent in what is known as USC's kingdom, and because it represented the truest test yet for a team with a national reputation for playing in the Holiday Bowl.  Test passed, with a few teeth ground down to the nerve on the side. And the defense, Cal's much-advertised weakness, bent without breaking, took Oregon's best shots and forced the fourth quarter interceptions that kept the Ducks at arms' length, literally as it turns out. Put another way, there is not another team in the nation whose leading interceptor (Tyson Alualu) is a 6-4, 288-pound defensive tackle.

Ultimately, though, this was Marcus Ezeff's moment. One hard hit at the last possible useful moment that changed the national college football landscape, kept his team undefeated, allowed him to atone for the late hit and the pick, and freed Tedford's jaw for re-clenching when the USC game comes up in November. As he said, "It's my job." As he also said, "I was having kind of a heart attack." Man, that's one lousy job ... and one strong heart.


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