Big Ten referees and the letter of the law

Tough day for Big Ten referees yesterday. First the Pinstripe Bowl celebration penalty debacle that cost Kansas State a chance to send the game into overtime. Then there was the fiasco that was the end of regulation in the North Carolina/Tennessee game. Ironically, Kansas State lost a chance to tie the game when the refs followed “the letter of the law” too closely while North Carolina got an easier chance to tie the game when the refs didn’t follow “the letter of the law” at all.

Pinstripe Bowl

By now everyone’s seen Adrian Hilburn’s salute to the crowd that drew the 15-yard penalty flag on the extra point. Here’s the play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MG2elnucMPY Down 8 with 1:13 left, Hilburn scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass, dropped the ball and saluted the crowd military-style. Flag. 15-yard excessive celebration penalty.* Carson Coffman’s fade pattern from the 18 doesn’t come close, the ensuing onside kick fails and Syracuse hangs on to win 36-34.

* I find it odd that, despite all of our concern of player safety, the single most damaging penalty in college football is the excessive celebration penalty after a touchdown. The penalty is a dead-ball penalty, so assuming the offense celebrates after a first down, they’ll have 1st and 10 instead of 1st and 25. This means that if Hilburn stepped out on the 1 and saluted the crowd from there, the referee throws the flag and it’s Wildcat ball 1st and 10 from the 16. They still have four plays to get to the 6, probably end up scoring and have a chance for a two-point conversion. Instead, with this harsh penalty, they have one chance to score from 18 yards away.

The most common theme for analysts yesterday was some variation of the “By the letter of the law, that’s a penalty, but there’s a time and a place for calling that and this isn’t one of them” argument. Let’s start with the first part of the argument – that by the letter of the law, saluting the crowd Hilburn committed a penalty. The rule in question is Rule 9-2-1-a-1-(d) on unsportsmanlike conduct of players:

“a. Specifically prohibited acts and conduct include:…

(d) Any delayed, excessive, prolonged, or choreographed act by which a player (or players) attempts to focus attention upon himself (or themselves).”*

* Another ironic bit of this letter of the law talk: not a single one of those terms is in the definition section, so it’s all subjective. By this rule, there’s never a situation that HAS to be a 15-yard penalty because the referee can define this rule however he wants.

The focus on that rule was on the second part yesterday, but there are two clauses that must BOTH be met for the ref to throw the flag.  A player must:

1. Commit a delayed, excessive, prolonged, or choreographed act, that

2. Draws attention upon himself.

The salute was clearly not prolonged or choreographed, so we can forget those. Referee Todd Geerlings said after the game that his crew threw flag because they determined that the act drew attention upon himself; either he isn’t aware of the first clause in the rule or just didn’t mention it in the press conference.* Perhaps the salute was delayed, but it doesn’t seem that way. Hilburn ran through the end zone with his own momentum and saluted when he came to a stop – not really what I would call delayed. So whether a penalty should have been called turns on whether the salute was excessive. Now as I mentioned, these terms are not defined, so each crew needs to come up with a philosophy on how they are going to enforce these calls. Because of that, a subjective call can not be wrong any more than someone could be wrong for liking vanilla ice cream more than chocolate ice cream. With that said, I’m not entirely sure how anyone seeing that salute could deem it excessive. Every football fan has a frame of reference when it comes to celebrations – we immediately compare this excessive celebration to other excessive celebrations. And I think that’s fair, especially considering excessive isn’t defined. I would say 99.9% of football fans agree that the call is not excessive.

* My favorite quote from Geerlings was that two of his referees threw the flag, trying to show that two of them saw the play and both saw the same thing. In the referreing business, we call that “topping the flag.” Whenever you see a fellow ref make a questionable call, you throw your own flag out there to help sell the call. Every referee that saw that quote immediately laughed at Geerlings for being full of bs.

The “drawing attention upon himself” is even more subjective, so there’s really no need to get into it. No, I don’t think he was drawing attention upon himself, but, unlike the “excessive” act, I could actually see how someone could think that. That’s probably why Geerlings focused on this part of the rule in his quote after the game. My point with this discussion is that a) there’s no such thing as “the letter of the law” in this case and b) the referee skipped past the first clause in the rule and moved right into the second clause. Not only does nothing in the rules require a flag here, I’d argue that the flag resulted from a mis-interpretation of the rule.

And here’s where I stand on the whole excessive celebration wrong time-wrong place argument: I’ve never thrown a celebration flag in two years and forty-some games of reffing. My line judge threw one once that I probably should have topped because the kid went on and on, but I didn’t get my flag out in enough time and probably wouldn’t have called it myself. So no, I can’t think of a single rational reason to throw that flag in any situation, let alone with the game on the line.

Music City Bowl

The end of the Music City Bowl was even stranger. North Carolina got the ball back on their own 20, down three with no timeouts and 32 seconds to go. On the first play, the Tar Heels hit a wide-open receiver at the 50 and a Tennessee player commits one of the most blatant launching with his helmet penalties I’ve ever seen. The hit nearly caused the UNC receiver to drop the ball before the pass was ruled complete after a lengthly review*

* Here’s what I mean on the strange penalty enforcement. The 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost KSU the game for a salute. In this game, had the review determined that the ball hit the ground, this extremely dangerous hit would have actually SAVED 15 yards for the Volunteers because the penalty would have been enforced from the Tar Heel 20, rather than the 50. Something seems off about that.

A few plays later, this catastrophe happened: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haA7OL2bDD0 The Tar Heels, for reasons that are completely unclear to me, attempt a draw play with 18 seconds left and no timeouts. For reasons that are even more unclear to me, six members of the field goal team run out on the field as the offense lines up for a spike. Panicked, quarterback T.J. Yates spikes the ball with no fewer than 17 players and 4 coaches on the field as time runs out. Game over…except it wasn’t. The booth called for a review and determined that, although the Tar Heels had almost two full teams on the field, the spike hit the ground with 1 second left. The referees penalize the Tar Heels five yards for having too many men on the field, but UNC hits the field goal anyway and goes on to win in double overtime.

The announcers treated the call as controversial, but probably the right call by the letter of the law. And they’d be wrong. The penalty should have been 15 yards, resulting in a much more difficult 49 yard field goal. Illegal substitution – e.g. breaking the huddle with 12 men – is a five-yard dead ball penalty. Illegal participation (rule 9-1-5-b) – having too many men participate in the play after the snap – is a 15-yard live ball penalty.

The 15-yard penalty is obviously a lot more strict, so often when we see too many men on the field and the team isn’t aware of it, we try to blow the whistle before the play starts. By doing this, we only penalize five yards for a dead-ball Rule 3-5 Illegal Substitution rather than a live-ball 15-yard illegal participation penalty.

In this game, the referees clearly did not do that. They ruled that the play was snapped – and they had to for the game to continue, because they surely didn’t blow the whistle before time expired – and the ball was spiked with one second left. If that’s the case, all six of the extra players participated in the play because they were on the field at the snap (and all the way through the play, for that matter). I had the volume of the Nebraska game turned up on my computer, so I didn’t catch the explanation from the referees, but by where the ball was snapped from on the next play, it was clear that they only penalized UNC 5 yards. The penalty, “by the letter of the law,” should have been 15 yards.* Perhaps UNC would have still made the 49-yard field goal and gone on to win, but still, pretty shocking incompetence from the refs.

* In the NFL, this would have also resulted in a 10-second runoff, so the game would have been over regardless of when the spike hit the ground. This rule makes infinitely more sense – I’d expect there’s somewhere around a 100% chance the NCAA looks at this rule in the offseason.

**********

So in the end, we have two Big Ten crews screwing up royally. We have one crew following the letter of the law too closely (and giving a skewed interpretation of the law at that) and another crew not even bothering to follow the letter of the law. Looks like Nebraska fans may get to continue to complain about the referees next year after all.

************

UPDATE: According to this AP article: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/bowls10/news/story?id=5976141, the NCAA coordinator of officials said that both calls were correct. There isn’t that much reporting in the article, so it’s hard to tell what he’s basing that on. I tried to do a Google search, but couldn’t find any more of his comments, so if anyone sees an article that gives the coordinators’ rationale for why the calls were correct, let me know. I can only note that the article says that “the rule book supports officials” in the KSU/Syracuse game – seems like one of those half-truths. As I write above, the rule book could support the official, but, reading it rationally, it probably doesn’t. No real comment on the 5-yard/15-yard penalty situation in the article, but he did say the NCAA will look at the NFL’s time runoff rule in the offseason.

 

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2 Responses to Big Ten referees and the letter of the law

  1. sportrant says:

    Very interesting and detailed post. I did not even know about the 15 yd penalty for too many players participate. I was just upset that the NCAA did not the rule about the 10 sec runoff. Nice job!

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