But in my 41 years in the officiating business, it’s uncanny how many times things have a way of evening out during a game.
The USC-Stanford game Saturday was a perfect example. Let’s take a look at two key plays — both touchdowns — that shouldn’t have been during the Cardinal’s dramatic upset of the No. 2-ranked Trojans.
THE FIRST: It doesn’t quite have the same ring as the "Bush Push," but the "Palo Alto Pull" played out the same way for USC. Both plays, albeit a little different, resulted in touchdowns, but both plays are illegal by rule. The play Saturday happened one month shy of the seven-year anniversary of USC running back Reggie Bush pushing quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone to give the Trojans an epic victory over Notre Dame in 2005.
Here was the situation Saturday: USC had the ball, second-and-goal from the Stanford 1-yard line with 9:47 left in the first quarter, with no score. USC RB Silas Redd scored on a 1-yard run, but offensive tackle Aundrey Walker pulled Redd into the end zone when he got bunched up at the line of scrimmage. The touchdown was allowed, but shouldn’t have been.
I can’t remember ever seeing this penalty called, but clearly it is illegal under the rule entitled "interfering for or helping the ball carrier."
Rule 9, Section 3, Article 2B of the NCAA rule book states: "The runner shall not grasp a teammate; and no other player of his team shall grasp, pull, push, lift or charge into him to assist him in forward progress."
It should have been a 5-yard penalty against USC, which would have nullified the touchdown. It would been been second-and-goal from the Stanford 6-yard line. The difference between the college and NFL rule is this: It’s legal to push a runner into the end zone in the NFL, making the "Bush Push" legal.
THE SECOND: Picture this, the game was tied at 14 with a little over 10 minutes remaining in the game, Stanford with the ball, second-and-10 from the USC 37-yard line. Stanford QB Josh Nunes completed a 37-yard pass to Zach Ertz for what became the game-winning TD. However, on the play, Cardinal tight end Luke Kaumatule hit USC safety Jawanza Starling with a block in the back at the 12-yard line to spring Ertz for the winning touchdown. Had the penalty been called, it would have been first-and-10 at the USC 22-yard line.
This can be an especially tough call to get right because officials have a tendency to watch the receiver to make sure he completes the process of the catch. This block in the back occurred very shortly after the catch was made, and in my mind, that was clearly the reason why it was missed.
Both of these calls are difficult to make, but they are fouls and they do need to be called.
Let’s take at a couple of other unusual plays from Saturday.
THE GAME: Alabama at Arkansas
THE SITUATION: Arkansas had the ball, fourth-and-6 from the Arkansas 43-yard line with 10:08 left in the first quarter. There was no score in the game.
THE PLAY: Arkansas kicker Dylan Breeding was attempting to punt and the ball was snapped over his head. As he was chasing it, he intentionally kicked the ball at the 10-yard line so it would go through the end zone. Arkansas was penalized six yards for illegal kicking.
MY TAKE: Not too often do you see illegal kicking of a loose ball. First of all, a snap is a backward pass. It’s illegal to intentionally kick a loose ball. If the offensive team kicks it backwards from behind the line of scrimmage, the penalty is 10 yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down.
The penalty could have been declined and the result of the play would have been a safety, since the offensive team is deemed to have put the ball into the end zone. The right decision was to accept the penalty, which meant that Alabama got the ball, first-and-goal at the 6-yard line after the enforcement of the loss-of-down penalty. Unusual penalty enforcement, but it was correctly handled.
THE GAME: Wake Forest at Florida State
THE SITUATION: FSU had the ball, first-and-10 at the Florida State 20-yard line with 9:54 left in the second quarter. The Seminoles led 21-0.
THE PLAY: Florida State RB Chris Thompson rushed down the sideline 80 yards for a touchdown. During the run, an official ran into a Seminoles coach on the sideline. Florida State was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
MY TAKE: There is a six-foot border around the outside of the field of play. That six feet is reserved for the officials. No substitute player or coach is allowed to be in that restricted zone.
On this play, the official covering the play ran into the coach and actually knocked the coach down. That is called sideline interference. Since the play resulted in a score, Wake Forest chose to enforce the 15-yard penalty on the succeeding kickoff. This rule is covered in the section of the NCAA rulebook called "unfair acts." The rule states: It is unsportsmanlike conduct if "while the ball is in play, any person other than a player or official that interferes in any way with the ball, player or an official, it is a foul."
The penalty is at the discretion of the referee as he is allowed to do anything he feels is equitable. Since the referee concluded the interference had no effect on the play, he allowed the touchdown and penalized FSU on the kickoff.
By the way, there are no longer sideline warnings. If a team has players or coaches standing in the restricted area, it can be a foul for delay of game the first two times it happens. If it happens a third time, it’s unsportsmanlike conduct.