Jan 2, 2014

Sparty Can Quit [Female-doggin']

sports by killre

Mind you, I was rooting for Michigan State to win the Rose Bowl.

When they took the field against the Stanford Cardinal on New Year's Day, the Spartans sported a spiffy ledger of twelve wins against just one loss.  That lone blemish came September 21st at Notre Dame by a final score of 17-13.  To hear them tell it, they'd have won that game too but for a pass-interference penalty they felt was undeserved.  I think it worth noting that whenever schools from different leagues or conferences play a college football game, the visiting team's conference provides the on-field officiating crew.  In other words, if Michigan State did get jobbed that day, it wasn't by a home-town ref.

I watched every second of that game (rooting for Notre Dame) and can't remember the play in question.  That's the thing about objectively poor on-field calls in sports: subjectively, they're an heinous miscarriage of justice only when they go against your team.  Even if you're dispassionate enough to recognize a call that favors your team as an objectively bad one, you tend to suddenly get vacuously philosophical about it: "Hey, bad calls are part of the game" or "these sorts of things even out eventually."  Well, if Michigan State's claims are true that their defensive unit legally mugged a Notre Dame pass receiver that day --right in front of Touchdown Jesus and everybody-- and the Spartans were cheated out of a victory by the same zebra-striped police squad they brought with them, then in my opinion things have indeed evened out...

Late in the fourth quarter of the 2014 Rose Bowl Game, Michigan State held a 24-17 lead over Stanford.  The Cardinal had the ball, however, and they were driving it deep into Spartan territory-- helped, in part, by one very generous spot awarded them by the Big 12 crew who was officiating the game.  Eventually, with little more than five minutes to play, Stanford faced a fourth down and four yards-to-gain situation at the Michigan State 17 yard line.  Cardinal head coach David Shaw sent the field-goal unit into the game.  A successful kick would trim the Spartans' lead to four points.

When the casual football fan sees a field-goal formation, they likely see three things: the kicker, the holder, and a bunch of guys forming a beefy blunted wedge at the line of scrimmage.  While the field-goal unit is known as a "special team," a textbook on the sport would tell you they are an offensive unit.  As such, their formation must conform to a number of simple but rigid rules.  There are seven men on the line of scrimmage.  The book would call them the left end, left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, right tackle, and right end.  Two more hefty specimens take their stance roughly a yard back from the line, flanking either end.  The book would tell you they are wingbacks.  It would also tell you that the field-goal unit is not obligated to attempt a field goal.  The holder, who is the de facto quarterback of the unit, can run a different type of play.  If said play is a forward pass, there are five men on his squad who are eligible to catch it: the kicker, the two ends, and the two wingbacks.  The other five men on the line aren't even allowed to go more than three yards down-field, let alone touch the ball.

Stanford never intended to fake the kick.  When holder Ben Rhyne received the ball from center, he caught it cleanly and planted the point in the turf without incident.  Holders, however, like to rotate the ball so its seams face away from the kicker, believing this results in a truer salvo.  When Rhyne tried to rotate the ball, he knocked it off its axis.  Realizing his kicker's attempt was disrupted, Rhyne quickly grabbed the ball with both hands, stood, and scrambled to his right looking for someone to whom he could throw.  Fortunately, three of his receivers (the right end and both wingbacks) realized what was happening and lumbered rightward, too, on a divergent angle that would take them past the first-down marker.  With three Spartan defenders bearing down on him, Rhyne lofted a toss down-field that looked a bit like a bloated badminton birdie.  It was pulled in by Trent Murphy, the left wingback.  Unbelievably, Stanford no longer had to settle for just 3 points.  Now, with a first down and goal at the Michigan State 8, they would have three or four chances to tie the game.

Then a penalty flag came sailing in from the... I don't know, side judge or back judge or line judge or some other mush-mouthed Great Plains justiciar whose brain had suddenly farted away the rules of football.  Exactly who dropped their hankie doesn't matter, because a quorum of the officiating crew held an impromptu committee meeting and decided collectively that since all the guys who had rumbled down-field were bulging behemoths, one of them must have been an ineligible lineman.  They never actually said which one-- probably because they didn't know.  All the Stanford players were wearing big, bright red numbers on big, bright white jerseys, but the refs weren't able to say which big red number was supposedly at fault.

ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit made the same mistake.  Herbstreit, who is one of the best analysts in the business despite the fact that he still hasn't completely overcome a minor speech impediment which causes him to want to add an L to any syllable with an "awe" sound (you have to listen carefully to realized he actually is saying "AWE-fence" rather than "ALL-fence"), would eventually stick both feet in his mouth supporting the call.  One minute after the play happened, he singled out Luke Kaumatule as the illegal receiver.  Kaumatule, however, was lined up at right end-- which means he was eligible.  Less than two minutes later, Herbstreit revised his theory and named center Joshua Garnett the guilty party.  While it's true that Garnett would have been in violation of the rules if he'd been more than three yards down-field when the pass was thrown, the replay shows him at the 15 yard line when Rhyne releases the ball.  The line of scrimmage was the 17.  That's two yards, not three.

ESPN brought Walt Anderson, the head of all Big 12 officials, into the booth for an "explanation."  Play-by-play man Brent Musburger asked, "Was that a good call, ineligible receiver down-field?"

Anderson gave the question an Heisman-esque stiff-arm, neither saying yes nor throwing his boys on the field under the proverbial bus.  He opted instead to recite a bunch of things that you, because you are clever enough to peruse this site, already know:

"Right, the, the, uh, player who's lined up on the end of the line and the up-back are both eligible receivers, but once the other linemen go more than three yards down-field, then that would be an ineligible down-field."

Notice: He says go and would be, rather than went and was.

Stanford --for whom I suddenly found myself rooting-- was assessed a five-yard penalty and a replay of the down.  They used it to execute a flawless field-goal kick, making the score 24-20 in Michigan State's favor.  They then kicked the ball deep, figuring the Spartans would run the ball to burn time off the game clock.  They figured right.  State eventually punted the ball back to the Cardinal with just over three minutes to play, then stopped them on a fourth-and-one with under ninety ticks to go and that was the ballgame.

P.S.... Dan "I Did That Game Where Notre Dame Beat Michigan State.  It Was Just After I'd Been Reminded For Like The Fourteenth Time --Quote-- 'Read The Card Word For Word, Stupid!'" Hicks must go.

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