The debacle in Durham

We should be talking about Miami.

The Canes were left for dead after last week’s coach-killing 58-0 home loss to Clemson, but they someone managed to step up under interim coach Larry Scott and upset Duke in Durham to upend the Coastal Division race.

We should be talking about Miami, but we’re not.

We should be talking about Duke.

The Blue Devils erased a 12-point deficit in 5:48 to take the lead on a gutsy run play by Thomas Sirk with six seconds left. If the Duke quarterback doesn’t get into the end zone, the game is over.

We should be talking about Duke, but we’re not.

We should be talking about Sirk, and Max McCaffrey’s 90 yards on 9 catches, and Malik Rosier, who stepped in for an injured Brad Kaaya and quarterbacked Miami to 272 yards on 20 of 29 passing. We should be talking about big games by Joe Yearby, Herb Waters and Stacey Coley.

We should be talking about all of them, but we’re not talking about any.

And we absolutely should be talking about the most improbable, unbelievable 46 seconds that any of us will ever see in our collective lifetimes of watching football. Miami got the Duke kickoff with six seconds remaining in the game, trailing by three points, 75 yards from the end zone. They proceded to throw eight laterals, going backward inside their own five yard line, ranging from one side of the field to the other.

The ball traveled 149 yards North-South while being carried by various Miami players. It also traveled 48 yards East-West. It flew 104 yards in the air. The ball hit the ground twice. Duke defenders hit the ground at least a dozen times, and that was just the ones shown on the TV feed. A Miami ballcarrier’s knee appeared to hit the ground at least once. A flag did too.

On the third time the ball landed in Corn Elder’s hands, he took it up the sidelines, 91 yards, weaving between teammates and potential tacklers for a touchdown that would win the game, if it stood.

We should be talking about that play–now, tomorrow, during the offseason, and until our grandchildren head the other way when they see that look in our cataract-clouded eyes.

But we’re not.

We’re not talking about any of it, because, while the players on both sides rose to the occasion over and over again during the final six minutes, and in spades over the final six seconds, the officials did not.

The game was too big for the ACC officials on Saturday night, and their mismanagement of it is all that will matter, in the long run.

Regardless of how the final play was handled, there would be controversy. With 22 bodies flying around on a play that lasts nearly a minute and covers virtually the entire field, there’s going to be some illegal stuff going on that gets missed.

In a game where a team goes from a lock winner to shocking loser, twice in the final two minutes, there were be plenty of people crying foul.

Even with the help of replay, missed calls will happen. The game can overcome it. Anything capable of producing the final 46 seconds can’t be brought down by something as pedestrian as a missed call.

What cannot happen, is for the officials to lose control of the game, to panic, to shrink from the tough calls. All three occurred as first Duke and then Miami refused to die on Saturday night.

On Duke’s last touchdown drive, Miami was called for three pass interference penalties over a seven-snap stretch. On the 80-yard touchdown drive, 30 of the yards came from interference calls. One of the calls wiped out what would have been a game-clinching interception by Miami. Another flag came flying in late, from an official at least 15 yards away from the play.

That doesn’t mean the calls were wrong, but three penalties at such a key moment in the game will raise eyebrows, as will the 24 penalties called against Miami in the game–a figure that Miami beat writers claimed was the most in any college football game over the last several years.

Penalties are a part of football, however, and while Miami fans would have complained about the cluster of flags, it would have been a blip on the radar in a great Duke comeback.

The officials mangled the clock in the final minute, however, twice stepping in to stop play, with the clock running and Duke scrambling to get in position to get off another snap. On the second, the officials either neglected to signal that Duke had gotten a first down, which would temporarily stop the clock, or the clock operator didn’t see the signal. Neither is acceptable, nor is the delay to the clear things up that allowed Duke to line up and prepare for one final snap, which produced the touchdown. And, when Sirk just barely broke the plane of the end zone for the go-ahead score, there was no goal-line replay available to confirm the play.

The two mystery stoppages in play and the missing replay angle cast the interference flags in a different light. What were initially considered part of the game were now being reviewed as part of a pattern, and Twitter quickly filled with speculation and conspiracy theories: The league and ESPN wanted to preserve the showdown between unbeaten Coastal teams next weekend. It was another example of a Tobacco Road team getting all the calls over an out-of-state little brother.

There was no conspiracy of course, just incompetence, as officials were unable to manage the clock without impacting the hurry-up offense. And whoever was responsible for not having a goal-line camera–the ACC or a layoff-ravaged ESPN production crew–the oversight was inexcusable.

Then came The Play. There was at least one blatant block in the back that helped keep the play alive that was completely missed by the officials. They also missed a Miami ballcarrier’s knee hitting the turf, which would have ended the game.

Officials did throw a flag for an illegal block, a much less obvious hit that may have been from the side. It was also several yards behind the play, and it’s tough to construct a scenario where that Duke defender would have been able to prevent the score. While the officials missed the flag that should have been thrown and the whistle that should have been blown, they threw a flag on a nearly irrelevant development.

That put the officiating crew in a tough spot: Were they really going to throw a game-ending flag, wiping out a score that would put the Stanford Band play and Home Run Throwback to shame? After all the penalties, the sketchy final drive and the missing replay, could they throw one last significant flag in favor of the same team?

Had the flag been thrown on the first block, a shot that looked from one angle like it was square in the back, driving the Duke player forward several yards and appearing violent enough to cause injury, the answer should have been yes. On the iffy, less relevant block they chose to flag, it would be a different story.

Faced with the opportunity to make a tough call in the spotlight, the officials ducked.

They announced the penalty and said it would result in one final, untimed down.

This is one area where college differs from the NFL. In the pros, the game would be over if Miami had a touchdown-nullifying penalty. In college, they get one more crack at things.

The referee then continued his announcement, saying, “The play is under review.”

That was wrong in any league. If there was a penalty, the play is over at that point, and the touchdown is wiped out. There’s no review necessary.

What it appears happened was that the officials were hoping to get bailed out. Instead of making a game ending call, the officials were hoping to find a lateral that was actually an illegal forward pass. That would have gotten them off the hook.

Inexplicably, the replay review ignored the actual component of the play that WOULD have done just that. After reviewing for eight minutes, they concluded that the Miami player’s knee was not down, despite screen shots and photos showing just the opposite.

The referee turned on his mic and began to tell the crowd just that–the review had concluded that the runner’s knee was not down.

That was wrong. Not only the conclusion of the replay review but the way it was announced. A replay review is supposed to either “confirm” the call on the field, or, if it can’t be confirmed or overturned (i.e. there’s not compelling evidence either way) then the “call on the field stands”. The ref didn’t make either announcement. Had he said the call stood, that would imply that they couldn’t tell from the replay if the knee was down and ball still in the guy’s hand. That’s a defensible position to take. Instead, he announced, definitively that the replay concluded the runner’s knee was NOT down. That means there’s a replay angle somewhere that shows him releasing the ball before going down, something that, based on all photo evidence that’s surfaced so far, is impossible.

It really didn’t matter at that point, because the referee was quickly waved off by officials on the sidelines, and he meekly ended his announcement by saying, “We’re going to review it again.”

A few seconds later, he took the mic again and repeated his incorrect phrasing that the replay confirmed that the runner’s knee wasn’t down. He then added that the illegal block was actually from the side, not the back, so Miami’s game winning touchdown stood.

The referee never SAID explicitly that he came to that conclusion on the penalty through replay review. He certainly implied it by waving off the penalty immediately after a replay review.

The correct way to handle the situation was this:

  1. Referees huddle up after the touchdown and discuss the illegal block. AT THAT POINT, the referees would wave off the flag and inform the coaches and crowd that the call on the field was a game-winning touchdown.
  2. Replay would then review the touchdown to see if the laterals were legal and the ball carriers untackled.

That’s not how it happened. The officials never said which player was flagged, never announced the status of the penalty, never announced what the call on the field was. By mismanaging the communication so badly, they painted themselves into a corner that WHATEVER decision they made would be wrong. Instead of following league and NCAA procedures to make sure that the right decision is made whenever possible, they panicked and shrunk from the moment. On the biggest play of their career, they were afraid to make a call.

The ACC was given a wonderful gift on Saturday night–a spectacular game, filled with great performances on both sides, and an ending that none of us will ever see again. It’s a night that should be celebrated–a time capsule of a game to cherish, whether you were there, saw it on TV, or caught the replays on Twitter.

The gift was spoiled. There’s nothing left to cherish. All because a few people on the field weren’t up to the job they were given.

Duke deserved better. They deserved to understand why they lost.

Miami deserved better. They deserved an undisputed win on the biggest play in school history.

We all deserved better.