Wisconsin vs. Arizona State: Referee blunder was awful, and all too human

Christian Petersen

Saturday night's blunder was one of the biggest you may ever see by a football referee. It was also very human.

The mental fog that sets in at 2 a.m. has a lot of interesting properties, the ability to make bad puns unbearably funny for one. That fog also makes people useless in a crisis situation.

As Wisconsin prepared to attempt a game winning field goal, I prepared myself for Kyle French to make or shank the kick. Either way, I'd hug some bros and go to bed. Then like a bad dream, the tone shifted abruptly, without reason and towards a terrifying end. The game ended and I was snapped awake against my will. I had a lot of uncomfortable energy with no outlet. I stood dumbfounded and still for a very long time.

I couldn't sleep. Neither could a buddy who stayed up with me to commiserate. He dug into the NCAA rule book to figure out what the hell the referees were thinking when they ran off the field after presiding one of the most confusing sequences one may ever see in college football. They briefly met then left as if everything had wrapped up neatly. By the book, there was much left to do. There was a silver bullet. Section 3, Article 6:

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And an example:

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By my interpretation, Article 6 is a "my bad" clause: three incredibly ambiguous sentences that could be applied to any error that tips into what a referee deems is egregious. So the rule could apply to anything, really, if you want to stretch the definition. In college football, despite what you may have been led to believe, every play is reviewable (excluding fouls that are not explicitly reviewable, apparently).

The refs had the ability to put time back on the clock after the play and let Wisconsin get its field goal off, and the fact that they didn't solidified the sequence as the single biggest referee blunder I have ever seen. Packers-Seahawks was summoned in the conversations that took place after 2 a.m., but at least the officiating in that instance, while awful, was earnest. Saturday night was a sequence of increasingly awful decisions -- no flag on a clear penalty, holding Wisconsin's line back to let ASU's defense get set then fleeing the scene at the first available opportunity -- that indicated that the referees had checked out of the game completely. They were thinking about going home and going to bed.

I sympathize. In a fog, the referees prepared themselves for a basic series of end-game events. Wisconsin would center the ball, spike it then set up for Kyle French to win the game or not. Then Joel Stave did something weird, three Arizona State defenders dove on the ball as they should have and the referees, snapped awake against their will, were forced to make a series of critical decisions in a sudden stupor.

They failed because in that moment they were some combination of tired, stupid and scared. Being a referee is tremendously difficult, and no doubt mentally taxing. Almost every decision they make is graded pass/fail, and they are raked for their blunders more often than they are praised for running a game smoothly. In Tempe, they were 20 seconds away from walking off the field without a thought from anyone, which in their profession is the closest thing to a slap on the shoulder, "job well done" as they can expect.

Instead, they left the field under the accusatory gaze of cameras and hundreds of thousands watched as the referees abandoned their duties to the players who deserved closure on a delirious Arizona night. The refs ran in hopes they were in a dream gone bad. They weren't.

I doubt they slept.

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