Zebra Report: Sugar Bowl Safety, Celebratory Salute and Illegal Substitution
As we have slowly crept to the culmination of lengthy bowl season, there were three particular plays that caught my eye. I don't see any reason to draw out any sort of wordy intro, so let's dive in.
• Arkansas' defensive line stuffs Ohio State's Dan Herron on about the one-yard line and drives him back several yards deep into the end zone. Herron then breaks away for a split second before being taken down in the end zone. The officials rule a safety.
To fans of either team, this doesn't seem too complicated. People rooting for Arkansas think it was an obvious safety, because Herron broke away, thus resetting his forward progress. Those pulling for Ohio State may have thought the whistle should have been blown before Herron broke free or that his progress was always the point where the initial contact was made -- thus a bogus call.
I'm just here to illuminate how difficult a position the officials are in on a play like this.
Say the officials blow the whistle right as Herron is breaking free and he streaks down the sideline with what may have been a big play? So did Ohio State really want a quick whistle?
Say Arkansas drives Herron back into the end zone, only to purposely let go and then tackle him in the end zone. Should his forward progress really begin again just because he was let go? Do you think the officials should start judging intent of the tacklers?
When you start to play with scenarios like this, you can see how complicated a call that is. It's not black and white. It's a total gray area on when to blow the whistle and where to rule the forward progress.
My personal feeling on the call is it could have gone either way, but I believe the crew got it correct. Herron legitimately broke free from the would-be tackler in the end zone on his own -- which "resets" forward progress. A whistle any earlier would have been premature.
• Kansas State wide receiver Adrian Hilburn scores a touchdown that cuts the Syracuse lead to two with 1:13 left in the game. He quickly salutes and drops the ball. The back judge flags him for unsportsmanlike conduct and K-State is forced to try a 2-point conversion from the 18 instead of the three.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the call itself. I thought it was egregious, but it's really a judgment call.
Instead, I'm going to get after this notion that the same call should be made regardless of when something happens in the game. I couldn't disagree with this premise more, and this call is a great illustration as to why.
If an officiating crew wants to set the tone and allow nothing of that sort during a game, calling a quick salute like that in the first quarter isn't really a big deal -- so long as the crew follows through the rest of the game and stays consistent. But you can't tell me the officials don't know the time and score. In fact, they have to. It's part of the job to watch clock status and make sure the score is correctly kept.
My problem with the call is that knowing the score and time involved, the flag made the officiating the story of the game. That should never, ever be the case. Let the players decide the outcome. If the kid punches someone or turns around screaming the face of the defender, that's an easy flag. The story is the kid making a bonehead play and that player decided to commit an automatic penalty. But a quick salute aimed at no one on the opposing team once the ball is already on the ground?
That's taking the game into your own hands as an official. In my book, that is a cardinal sin.
• The end of the Tennessee-North Carolina fourth quarter. Man, what a mess. The weird thing is, you can technically go through the play and say the officials got every interpretation correct. North Carolina had, what, 17 players on the field? Thirteen at different times, maybe up to 20? You might remember Tennessee was hammered for 15 yards earlier this season, but that was illegal participation -- the players actually took part in the play. In this case, the only people who definitely participated in the play were the ones lined up. The people scurrying back and forth weren't taking part in the play, and illegal substitution is just five yards.
Technically speaking, the officials can stop the play and call illegal substitution if there are more than 11 players on the field ready to participate when the snap is imminent. Of course, with there only being one second left on the clock, doing so may have bailed out UNC. And there weren't more than 11 players lined up ready, they were all trying to either run in or out. Technically, the officials have to allow this and wait for the snap.
Also, there's a part of the substitution rule that says if an offense hurries to the line while substituting in an attempt to put the defense at a disadvantage, the offense has to allow the defense to match the substitutions. I'm not sure how you can even get into this one. UNC didn't even know what it was doing, so it's hard to say Tennessee needed the chance to figure it out. There's really not a good way to interpret this one instead of simply saying it doesn't apply.
Finally, I think it's pretty obvious there needs to be a 10-second runoff -- like in the NFL -- for illegal formation and/or illegal substitution in a case like this. Otherwise you could purposely just run the fastest two wide receivers up to the ball and have one snap it to other -- and then have the one who received the snap spike it to kill the clock -- only to turn around and accept the 5-yard penalty. Honestly, this play wasn't that much less ridiculous than that scenario. Rules are rules, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from mistakes. UNC won fair and square, but hopefully the NCAA learns something and makes a change.
That's it for now. I'll be back next Tuesday to weigh in on the officiating of the BCS Championship Game. Also will include anything controversial (see above) from the games between now and then.
Have a question or comment involving officiating, especially involving the differences between levels? E-mail me at Matt.Snyder@FanHouse.com or simply drop it in the comments section below. Feel free to submit plays for examination for future columns. I guarantee a response to serious inquiries.
Also, potential future zebras, if you want to get started but don't know how, drop me a line and I'll find your local association for you. I'm happy to help. The total is up to eight -- interestingly three from the Atlanta area.