I found the ending to Vanderbilt’s overtime loss to Tennessee last night confusing, and not for the reason you might suspect; it really was confusing. The Vols won the overtime coin toss and elected to go on defense first. On that first possession, a Jordan Rodgers pass was caught, the receiver fumbled the ball, and a Tennessee defender scooped it up (note that it may have been a strip or an interception– the whole thing is a muddled mass of murkey malarkey) and ran it back for a touchdown, thereby ending the game. An official had whistled the play dead, however, because he believed the Vol defender’s knee was down when he recovered the fumble. Although Tennessee only would have needed to kick a field goal to win, Vandy was not given the opportunity to defend that kick attempt. The Commodores had blocked one earlier (negated by penalty), and their defense had been responsible for most of their points on the night. Despite ESPNU’s consistently undesirable camera angles throughout the broadcast, television replays unequivocally demonstrated that the defender’s knee never touched the ground, which makes this all the more confusing, because those TV replays also unequivocally demonstrated that the play nevertheless had been whistled dead. There was an official review of the play, and the head official stated the scope of the review as whether the play had been whistled dead, not whether the defender’s knee was down. Anybody watching knew that Vandy won the former review, but lost the latter. Except that they didn’t.
VSL‘s Bobby O’Shea did some good work on this late into the night last night. He first reported on the immediate reaction of the former head of officiating for the NFL, Mike Pereria:
The referee said there was “no signal” and “no whistle” and hence, the replay assistant allowed the touchdown. Here’s the problem…. There was a whistle and there was a signal. What you really have here is an inadvertant whistle and unfortunately, it appears … that the official who blew the whistle and pointed to the ground did not step up and admit his mistake. It’s clear on video.
About and hour later, he reported a statement from the SEC’s Coordinator of Officials, Steve Shaw:
On the last play of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee game, in overtime, the Tennessee defender intercepted the pass, his knee did not touch the ground and he returned the interception for a touchdown. During the play, the head linesman incorrectly ruled that the Tennessee player’s knee was down when he intercepted the pass by blowing his whistle and giving the dead ball signal. The play was reviewed as if there was no whistle on the field and as a result, overturned the incorrect ruling. By rule, if there was a whistle blown, the play is not reviewable.
But, no harm, no foul? O’Shea lodges many criticisms of the handling of this outcome, all of them valid, but if the right thing happened, does Vanderbilt really have a leg to stand on here? I think so, because, as someone else pointed out, whistles blowing a play dead affect the players playing on the field in the moment. I didn’t stick around long enough to see enough replays to know whether Vandy defenders let up and otherwise could have caught the UT defender who recovered the ball, but that isn’t the sort of secondary judgment call replay officials should be making, and it’s why the on-field official likely correctly stated the scope of review as whether whistles blew the play dead. If the play had been blown dead, even if erroneously, we don’t get to imagine what would have happened had that erroneous whistle not been blown, even if that’s what it looks like we got here. That’s why the rule, as Shaw stated, is that a play is not reviewable if the whistle was blown, as it plainly was in this case.