The Flag Heard ’round the World

Written September 16th, 2011 by Eric

This article originally ran on September 8th, 2010 in the week leading up to last year’s battle between Ohio State and Miami. We post it again heading into tomorrow’s game with the Hurricanes.

This? This could be legal.

There have been few calls in the history of college football that have had earth shattering impacts on the entire collegiate fanbase.  The mysterious 5th down in the Missouri/Colorado game comes to mind as one of the absolute worst.  But in more recent times the first call that will pop off the tongue of anyone old enough is the “Pass Interference” call in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.

There has been an awful lot of time wasted in discussion of the topic.  Absolutely everyone has an opinion on it whether or not their favorite team was directly involved in the game.  It has gotten absolutely out of control despite some attempts to end the controversy and despite a few posts of a more vociferous variety. Of course, there have been more than a few attempts to exacerbate it and turn it into a larger than life disaster of epic proportions.

ESPN has begun talking up the pass interference call, along with other major media outlets, mostly because they know the topic sells.  This is, of course, one reason why I’m going to get my shot in on the argument – I’m tired of the fact that this is the one play from that game that everyone remembers.

My hope is to objectively analyze the play from the very basics of the rules.  The question in mind is “Does the defensive player clearly violate the rules as set forth in the College Football Rulebook?”  Of course, in this day and age we’re capable of doing that simply by downloading the appropriate rulebook (pdf)!

Yea yea, that’s not the 2002 rulebook.  I pull that one out later.  That’s the current rulebook which I desperately wanted an excuse to toss out there for you, our loyal readers, to see and enjoy this season.

Lets start off by first setting the stage.  During the first overtime of the 2002 National Championship, Maimi of Florida held the lead after scoring a touchdown on their attempt.  Ohio State was trying to drive the 25 yards but had met stiff resistance.  A spectacular 17 yard play on 4th and 14 to Michael Jenkins put the Buckeyes in good field position but it was squandered.  With the Buckeyes looking at 4th and a 3 from the 5, Craig Krenzel dropped back to throw..

What a nightmare. The flag came out 3 seconds after the play ended (inexcusable, no matter what) – although I recall it feeling something like an eternity before that I saw that flag fly – and there’s so much contact that it’s tough to say exactly what has happened.

Ok, lets consult the rulebook, shall we?  For your reference, so that you can follow along and make certain that I’m not cheating you, the pages from which the following references occur are pages 93 and 94 of the PDF (rulebook pages FR-92, at the bottom, and continuing on FR-93).

Illegal Contact and Pass Interference
ARTICLE 8. a. During a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the
neutral zone, illegal contact by Team Aand Team B players is prohibited
from the time the ball is snapped until it is touched by any player or
an official (A.R. 7-3-8-II and III).

c . Defensive pass interference is contact beyond the neutral zone by a
Team B player whose intent to impede an eligible opponent is obvious
and it could prevent the opponent the opportunity of receiving a catchable
forward pass. When in question, a legal forward pass is catchable.
Defensive pass interference occurs only after a legal forward pass is
thrown. It is not defensive pass interference if it is the type that occurs
(A.R. 7-3-8-I, IV, V, IX-XI, XIV and XV):
1 . When, after the snap, opposing players immediately charge and
establish contact with opponents at a point that is within one yard
beyond the neutral zone.
2 . When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and
bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass. Eligible players of
either team have equal rights to the ball (A.R. 7-3-8-XII).
3 . When a Team B player legally contacts an opponent before the pass
is thrown (A.R. 7-3-8-XIII).

The ellipse is for the rules on offensive pass interference which are similar but irrelevant here.  It is clear that the offensive player did not in any way initiate contact with the defender, that leaves us with the job of determining whether the call was defensive pass interference or not.

I want to make a quick point about the nature of the pass interference rule.  Notice that the definition of the rule is not “Pass interference is…”, the definition is in the form of a negative, i.e. “Pass interference is not...”.  This is why it can be so confusing to try to figure out if something really is illegal contact or not.  Luckily, the exceptions are few.  Let’s first start by determining if the conditions for pass interference hold true.

During a down in which a legal forward pass crosses the
neutral zone, illegal contact by Team Aand Team B players is prohibited
from the time the ball is snapped until it is touched by any player or
an official

The pass was clearly a legal forward pass.  Without hacking too deep into those rules, as long as the pass is to an eligible receiver who has not stepped out of bounds under his own power and the ball was thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, then it should be legal.  All of those conditions remain true.  That leaves the question of was there contact between the Team A (offensive) and Team B (defensive) players?

If you think there wasn’t go watch that again.  If you still think there wasn’t you need to get your eyes examined.

The question now remains if it was illegal contact.

Defensive pass interference is contact beyond the neutral zone by a
Team B player whose intent to impede an eligible opponent is obvious
and it could prevent the opponent the opportunity of receiving a catchable
forward pass. When in question, a legal forward pass is catchable.
Defensive pass interference occurs only after a legal forward pass is
thrown.

As another aside, do you want to know why the refs screw up the “catchable” clause of the pass interference rule so often?  It’s because the rulebook invites them to assume that the ball is catchable if they can’t clearly tell.  Wonderful.

Lets break this down.

  1. Was there contact beyond the neutral zone? Yes, that is apparent in that the players are essentially in contact with each other the majority of the way into the endzone.
  2. Was there an intent to impede the eligible receiver? Yes, obviously.  At the goal line the Miami defender clearly grabs hold of the receiver in an attempt to stop him. (This is critical, remember it!)
  3. Could it have prevented the reception of a catchable forward pass? Absolutely.  The ball was clearly catchable as it hit the receiver in the hands.  Also, any action taken by the defender could have led to the receiver dropping the pass.
  4. Does contact occur after the ball is thrown? (defensive pass interference can only occur after the throw)  The contact made on the goal line, while hard to tell from the video feed, occurs while the ball is in the air.  Therefore the contact occurs after the quarterback has released the football.

Bored yet?  Great, cause we’re just getting started.

There are three exceptions to the rule that are eminently confusing, so pay close attention.  We’ll attack them one at a time.

It is not defensive pass interference if it is the type that occurs

1 . When, after the snap, opposing players immediately charge and
establish contact with opponents at a point that is within one yard
beyond the neutral zone.
2 . When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and
bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass. Eligible players of
either team have equal rights to the ball (A.R. 7-3-8-XII).
3 . When a Team B player legally contacts an opponent before the pass
is thrown (A.R. 7-3-8-XIII).

Let’s break it down.

  1. This allows for the jamming of a receiver, which is an important defensive tactic for breaking the timing of a route.  It is clear from the video that contact was made more than 1 yard from the line of scrimmage, negating this rule.
  2. You could argue a lot about this particular point.  However, when the ball reaches the receiver the defender is never in a position to make a play on the ball. He only makes a cursory swipe at the ball long after the ball has already hit the receiver.  Lets be clear here, the defender never made a play on the ball, he only played the receiver – a big no-no.
  3. Talk about your wishy-washy rules. “When a Team B (defensive) player legally contacts an opponent before the pass”.  Thanks guys.  So what is legal contact?  The answer is any contact that is not holding before the ball is released.  An example of this is if the defender lays out the receiver before the quarterback releases the ball.  This does not hold, as the contact is made down field after the ball has been thrown.

Therefore, this is clearly a case of pass interference.  The important point to remember is that the pass interference occurred at the goal line while the ball was in the air, not as the ball was getting to the players.  The majority of replays shown that night do not clearly demonstrate the infraction because the majority of them (especially the close-ups) ran after the penalty happened.  It’s also not a common form of pass interference – generally players are much more careful about making contact with a player until the point when the ball is about to get there.  In this case, the infraction occurred moments after the quarterback threw the ball making it tough for the side-judge (who people often point at being responsible for the call) to realize that the ball was in the air while watching the contact.  The ref at the back of the endzone had the best look and rightly made the call.

Still don't believe? This image was taken before the ball made it to Gamble and Sharpe. The ball is clearly in flight, and Sharpe is already in contact and making a play on Gamble.

It looks like the Line Judge there in the middle of that circle is in perfect position to make the call.  Miami fans (along with others who defend the play as legal) argue that this ref should have made the call and the fact that he didn’t justifies their argument that this was not interference.  Unfortunately, this ignores a principle part of officiating.  Just because a ref is immediately next to the play does not mean that he is the only one allowed to make a legitimate call on a play.  A reffing crew works together as a team to call the plays as they see them.  I can safely turn the argument around and say that the line judge is in perfect position to negate the pass interference call by Terry Porter if he was so certain that it wasn’t.  You may note that refs do often pick up flags that have been thrown after discussion of the fact.  The fact that he doesn’t seem to make a call either way (or even put up a fight when Porter does) indicates that he did not think he could properly ascertain what had happened on the play, and instead thought that Terry Porter had a better angle on it.

With all that said, to continue the exercise, lets consider the placement of the ball after the penalty.  Dan Fouts clearly says “First down on the 1 yard line”.  Well, honestly, we already know that Fouts is an idiot, but lets double check to be sure.  Here is what the 2002 rulebook says regarding ball placement.

PENALTY—Pass interference by Team A: 15 yards from the previous
spot [S33].
Pass interference by Team B: Team A’s ball at the spot of the
foul, first down, if the foul occurs less than 15 yards beyond
the previous spot. If the foul occurs 15 or more yards
beyond the previous spot, Team A’s ball, first down, 15
yards from the previous spot [S33].
When the ball is snapped between the Team B 17-yard line
and the Team B two-yard line and the spot of the foul is
beyond the two-yard line, the penalty from the previous
spot shall place the ball at the two-yard line, first down
(A.R. 7-3-8-XVII).
No penalty enforced from outside the two-yard line may
place the ball inside the two-yard line (E x c e p t i o n : R u l e
10-2-2 – g – 2 ) .
If the previous spot was on or inside the two-yard line, first
down halfway between the previous spot and the goal line
(Rule 10-2-3 Exception).

Clearly the ball was spotted between the 17 and the 2 yard lines (it was on the 5) and the penalty occurred beyond the two yard line (beyond in this case means going into the endzone).  Therefore the ball should be placed first and goal from the two. If you watch the starting position of the subsequent play, it is clearly on the two yard line, first and goal.

Am I splitting hairs?  Sure I am, but there’s nothing more satisfying than making it clear that Fouts has no business talking about college football rules in any way shape or form.  There may be a reason why he doesn’t do commentating anymore.

Also, it’s almost as if the College Football rule book expected this exact situation.

XVII . Fourth and goal for Team A on Team B’s five-yard line. Team A’ s
legal forward pass is incomplete, but Team B interfered on its one
yard line or in its end zone. RULING : First and goal for Team A on
Team B’s two-yard line.

Sound familiar?

Of course, after this the Buckeyes went on to score 2 unanswered touchdowns and set the stage for this, the play that I remember most of all from that game:

Now, for my sanity, can we please stop talking about this call?  Of course, I’m not delusional enough to think that an article like this will actually convince anyone of anything.

I just had to give it a try, though.

17 Comments

  1. buckinncNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Logic? Rules? Miami fans won’t understand that

    [Reply]

  2. cytNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 10:30 am

    you would think Paul Keels would at least be a little enthusiastic …I mean come one we just won the national championship

    I guess that’s just how he is

    [Reply]

  3. Bacon NinjaNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 10:31 am

    You said it much, much more politely than I did, but I’d think your delivery of the message was probably more effective.

    Were it up to me,we wouldn’t even be talking about this. You’d think there would be more than enough compelling storylines to delve into that deal with the current incarnations of both teams.

    But no, we keep having to make this argument, (almost) 7 years after the fact. That or let the “the Canes got robbed” narrative continue to take hold and become conventional wisdom, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

    From now on and speaking for myself, whenever the subject comes up I’m just going to link to this post. Beautifully done.

    [Reply]

    EricNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks Ninja!

    I really enjoyed your own post on the subject. It certainly got the emotional aspect of the argument down pat! =D

    [Reply]

  4. In which I go all Tressel and clarify stuff : Not Dead Ninja Storage
    September 10th, 2010 at 10:34 am

    [...] – for a thorough and non-swear-filled final word on the topic of “the flag,” go here. I’m done talking about [...]

  5. It’s the Canes again : Not Dead Ninja Storage
    September 10th, 2010 at 10:35 am

    [...] – for a thorough and non-swear-filled final word on the topic of “the flag,” go here. I’m done talking about [...]

  6. MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Here’s the thing…

    That Miami team was the first to be anointed as “the greatest ever” by ESPN (interesting that the other team that distinction fell upon also lost to an underdog), and was a significant favorite to win.

    The Hurricanes had the ball 1st and goal from the two yard line at the end of overtime, and couldn’t score.

    Does it fall on one blown call? Not any more than it should fall on the myriad of blown calls that the Buckeyes experienced throughout the game.

    Ohio State outperformed them on the field all day, and to say otherwise minimizes the efforts of those Buckeye and those Hurricanes, who should be honored for their performance rather than remembered by whining.

    [Reply]

  7. EricNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    So, I should mention a couple additional points.

    1) Legal contact between a receiver and the defender is defined specifically as “hand checking”, where the defender smacks the receivers shoulders with his hands – *before* the ball is released. This is generally why you hear commentators say that “contact inside of 5 yards is legal”. It’s actually that jamming the receiver by hand checking them is legal while the ball is not airborne and it usually takes about 5 yards before the quarterback throws (on shorter routes).

    2) I guarantee that the call Terry Porter makes in the full video in the replay where he switches from “Defensive Holding” to “Pass Interference” went something like this…
    Terry Porter: “Defensive Holding, Number 31 Green. Foul occurred while the ball was in the air, therefore it is Pass Interference.”

    Not a change of mind, simply enunciating what the foul was so that it was clear to everyone involved.

    [Reply]

  8. southbaybuckeye_ITSNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    that video of the final play still gives me chills. brings me back to freshman year all over again.

    [Reply]

  9. LuisNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    All I have to say is this.

    2 yards

    6 feet

    72 inches

    If an unstoppable force can’t move that much in 4 tries, they cannot complain about anything.

    [Reply]

  10. RodNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    So tired of reading ESPN trying to pump this call up as extra hype for this game. Great analysis of it Eric, you’ve really given everyyone who doesn’t think this call was legit no leg to stand on. That play was pass interference, holding, face mask, and almost every other defensive penalty you can think of. Go Bucks!

    [Reply]

  11. Bacon NinjaNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Just going to (kind of) play Devil’s Advocate for a second.

    I watched the game on BTN today for about the fiftieth time, but the first time since “the call” came back into the public eye. I’ll allow this much: just watching the replays from the camera angles during the telecast, it’s not unreasonable to question the call. Dan Fouts didn’t seem nearly as apeshit as I remembered, although he was still wrong. One problem is they didn’t have a camera angle from the back of the end zone, where the referee that made the call was standing. They also didn’t show a reverse angle, which probably would have helped. Finally, none of the camera views shown during the telecast were high enough to show the image that we can see in your post (the one with the ball in flight and contact being made at the same time)

    I often wondered if Fouts’ reaction to the call was personal, since he’d played with Kellen Winslow Sr. and been inducted into the Hall of Fame with Walter Payton, both men who had sons playing for the Canes. After watching the telecast again today – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was wrong about the penalty and he was wrong about the placement of the ball following the penalty, but he didn’t lapse into Mark May, full-retard mode at any point. Damning by faint praise, perhaps, but what are you gonna do? I can’t do any more damage to Dan Fouts’ reputation than Dan Fouts did when he agreed to do “The Waterboy.”

    Please note that none of this excuses the people who has been railing about this over the last five or six years. All the imagery that you (and I) have used to make our point has been available for years now, and it’s time this gets laid to rest.

    I’d bet that a lot of the people who holler about “the call” saw it once on TV, seven years ago, and haven’t actually watched it since.

    But that’s just me. Sorry for the long post.

    [Reply]

  12. Bacon NinjaNo Gravatar
    September 16th, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    “the people who has been…”

    Jacked that one up, didn’t I?

    [Reply]

    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    September 16th, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    Nothing but the best from you, Bacon.

    [Reply]

    KenNo Gravatar
    September 17th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Looks like merely a typo to me. In all the excitement…

    [Reply]

  13. EvanNo Gravatar
    September 16th, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    The call should be a non issue. As MaliBuckeye points out, the game should have been over after the Chris Gamble first down catch that was ruled incomplete. Not only did he catch it inbounds but he was held on the play as well. Oh and Krenzel was hit late too. So, first down Buckeyes and game over! The overtime never happens if not for the Buckeyes being screwed.

    Sadly, that doesn’t fit the tidy narrative.

    Let’s go Bucks! Make it three straight against these guys.

    [Reply]

  14. LuisNo Gravatar
    September 17th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

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