The design of Central Michigan’s Hail Mary-plus-a-lateral to beat No. 22 Oklahoma State should be admired. Reminiscent of Boise State’s “Hook and Lateral” stunner from the 2007 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma, Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush found receiver Jesse Kroll at the nine-yard-line, and Kroll pitched a perfect lateral to fellow receiver Corey Willis, who broke to the opposite side of the field and scored the game-winning touchdown to secure a stunning 30–27 upset. The perfect execution was worthy of the intricate design. It’s a play that should make any 2016 top-10 list.
Seriously, it’s awesome. Just watch!
By now, you probably know that the officiating crew mistakenly awarded Central Michigan an untimed down. The basics are this: Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph was flagged for intentional grounding as time expired, and the officials ruled the penalty should result in Central Michigan receiving one untimed down. The problem is that under “Extension of Periods,” Article 3, Rule 1 specifies that “The period is not extended if the foul by the team in possession and the statement of penalty includes loss of down.” As intentional grounding results in loss of down, the rule applies to Oklahoma State’s penalty.
The officials’ logic wasn’t flawed—if one team heaves the ball to nobody on fourth down just to let time expire, then the opposition should be awarded one final play. Unfortunately that’s not how the rule is written.
And thus we have a rare case of a refereeing error literally costing a team—one with College Football Playoff aspirations no less—a game. The play was fun, but Oklahoma State should be awarded the win. Any team should defend a Hail Mary play better than the Cowboys did, and they should be ashamed of their overall performance, but none of those factors excuse the officiating crew’s error.
Many are shrugging this off as one of the long list of refereeing errors that harmed teams. There’s the Oklahoma-Oregon onside kick fiasco from 2006. Or the pass interference call against Miami that allowed Ohio State to win the 2002 national championship. How about Colorado’s fifth down against Missouri in 1990? Every fan base its sob story.
The most recent case is the Miami-Duke kick return return last season. Time expired by the conclusion of the play on which the Hurricanes scored the game-winning touchdown despite committing a host of infractions—forward laterals, blocks in the back—that should have been flagged and nullified the touchdown. It was the worst bit of officiating in recent memory. The Blue Devils had no recourse and took an undeserved loss, ushering in the conversation of whether results can and should be reversed if a team wins on the last play of a game because of an egregious officiating error. Duke hardly needed another lesson in hardship but received one as the ACC confirmed the errors and suspended the crew but refused to alter the result.
The difference between what happened last year and what happened Saturday is that during the Duke-Miami onside kick, the officials missed all of their calls during the run of play. Forward laterals and blocks in the back are live-ball fouls, thus inherently more difficult to challenge. The ACC likely didn’t want to litigate the Duke result because of a precedent that every final play could be reviewed to determine if a penalty happened anywhere during the play.
On Saturday, the MAC officiating crew misapplied a call and, in turn, invented a rule with no time remaining on the clock. Referees can be forgiven for judgment lapses and occasional rule misinterpretations, but the gray area that usually forgives officiating blunders doesn’t exist in this instance.
If the rule was applied properly, the game would have ended. There’s a stark difference between “bad calls are part of the game” and creating a new rule in the middle of a game.
The difference between what happened in Stillwater and Duke-Miami or any other relevant example is marked and serious. If an entire crew doesn’t know how to apply a rule, it should be suspended (this one probably will). If a crew creates a new rule and costs a team a game because of it—precisely what happened Saturday—the conference should wield the power to change the result of the game. This is not a difficult precedent to overcome; referees usually avoid creating new rules when they’re unsure of what to do, and teams don’t often score game-winning plays on untimed downs.
The fallout from Saturday’s blunder is already in action. The MAC issued a sheepish mea culpa and the Big 12 admitted its replay booth messed up too. By rule, the result of the game is final. Oklahoma State is, predictably, fuming.
College football has marketed itself for years on having the best regular season because of its low threshold for mistakes, and now one team had a game stolen and its playoff aspirations likely ended because the officials didn’t know what to do. That’s not missing a forward lateral or incorrectly judging how far an onside kick traveled; it’s gross negligence and inadequate knowledge of the rulebook.
To his credit, Cowboys coach Mike Gundy admitted he wasn’t sure of the rule himself and instead focused on his team’s shortcomings and Central Michigan’s standout performance. Admirable, maybe, but Oklahoma State should not be handed a loss in this game, no matter how fun the final play was.