Column: Change needed in college football officiating system

Ending of LSU-Auburn game last Saturday highlights major weakness in college football

By Beau Troutman | 9/28/16 11:25pm


Imagine your greatest sports moment. A game-winning touchdown, a last-second buzzer beater. Pretty awesome, right?

Now imagine your heart being ripped out.

That’s what Louisiana State Tigers football fans had to deal with Saturday, Sept. 24 in their game on the road against the Auburn Tigers. Late in the fourth quarter of their game against Auburn, trailing 18-13, the Tigers drove the ball inside the Auburn 10-yard line with hardly any time left.

A few things happened from there. On the second-to-last play of the game, LSU receiver DJ Chark was mistakenly called for an illegal shifting penalty with one second left in the game. Chark failed to get set before the snap of the ball, and this is technically a form of dead ball penalty that carries a 10-second runoff. However, the referees called an illegal shift, leaving one second on the clock.

This created the following scenario: LSU, if they could get set and snap the ball after the ref blew his whistle, thus starting the game clock that had only a single tick left on it, they could have one final play.

That’s possible, right? I think not.

So, LSU tried their best, and lo and behold: they got the snap off. LSU quarterback Danny Etling rolled right looking for an open man. Defenders began to close in on Etling, who was about to pass the line of scrimmage near the right sideline when he finally threw the ball toward the end zone.

LSU’s Chark reached up dragged his feet in the right corner of the end zone with a few blades of artificial turf separating him and the out-of-bounds marker—and made an incredible stretched-out catch.

Game over. Fans cheered. The LSU players piled on top of Chark. Some players got down on one knee and prayed. The comeback was complete, and Auburn walked away with a loss.

Only, they didn’t. The referees reviewed the play and, to no one’s surprise, LSU failed to get the snap off before the one and final second ticked off the clock. The result? The play never happened. By rule, Chark’s insane, game-saving catch didn’t count because the clock read quadruple zeroes.

It wasn’t Chark’s fault. It wasn’t the coaches’ fault. There’s only one culprit to blame here: the referees.

First and foremost, the game should’ve ended before the final play. But, because the penalty on Chark was miscalled, there was no 10-second runoff.

The most blatant error about the game, though, was the fact that the referees let the “final” play happen. There are seven referees per game—including the back judge, who has a direct view of the gameclock—and not one of the referees assigned to the LSU-Auburn game watched the clock hit zero before Etling snapped it and made the not-so-miraculous last play.

The officials should have blown the play dead before it even got started, effectively ending the game. Instead, an entire fan base collectively got their hearts broken. Even worse? Though it was long overdue, LSU coach Les Miles was fired the Monday after the game.

The referees, you ask? They’re still employed. They didn’t get their hearts ripped from their black-and-white striped chests. All they got from Saturday’s ordeal was a paycheck from the NCAA.

College football referees continually get away with being, to put it succinctly, bad at their jobs. The targeting rule, the most controversial rule in maybe all of sports, is incorrectly called every week, but the subjective nature of the rule lends itself to error.

In Wisconsin’s game against Michigan State on Saturday, Badgers senior linebacker Brandon Smith was called for targeting on a play in which he was clearly going for the ball and made incidental helmet-to-helmet contact with an MSU receiver. The call was reviewed, and the referees upheld the call and Smith was ejected.

Then you have Stanford receiver Francis Owusu, who was blatantly spearheaded by UCLA defensive back Tahaan Goodman, yet no penalty was even called, let alone reviewed by the officials.

Case in point, college football should adopt the same reviewing process as the NFL. On NFL scoring plays and reviews, the gameday referees confer with a command center in New York to determine the right call. No plays are missed, no camera angles are left unviewed and no calls are missed because a sixty-something year old referee couldn’t keep up with Leonard Fournette racing down the sideline.

College football’s integrity is being hurt every week because we depend on the subjectivity of a given group of seven referees. We have the luxury of instant replay—Division II football doesn’t, in case you didn’t know—so let’s use it correctly.

Oh, and one more thing: Most fans will recall Central Michigan’s last-second Hail Mary touchdown win over the Oklahoma State Cowboys. That play, like LSU’s “final” last play, never should have taken place. CMU won, and OSU’s season was dealt a death blow.

What happened to the refs, you ask? They were given a week off—excuse me, “suspended”—and then returned to work the next week.

Be warned, unsuspecting fan bases. You might be next.

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