Rules are rules, as the maxim goes.
The world of sports is supposed to a place where clear lines on the field and in the rule book mark is and isn’t permitted.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the lines aren’t clear. And sometimes, when ambiguity exists, league officials decide to create new rules on the fly and then act like those rules existed the entire time.
That’s what happened in the aftermath of the controversial call in the last minute of Saturday’s Auburn-Arkansas game when Auburn quarterback Bo Nix fumbled a snap on a designed spike with Auburn down by a single point.
After scooping up the ball, Nix then turned backward before spiking it. Some Arkansas players pursued the ball and one recovered it. The play was initially ruled an intentional grounding penalty but upon late review it was obvious that the attempted spike was actually a recovered fumble that would have sealed the game for Arkansas.
Instead, the intentional grounding penalty stood and Auburn kicked in the winning field goal to take the game 30-28.
Matt Austin, the SEC Network’s officiating analyst, hopped onto the SEC Football Final show that night to explain the call. Austin said that when the ball hit the ground after Nix fumbled the snap, it made the following spike illegal. But since he recovered the ball and turned backwards, he then created a live ball.
Austin then said that instant replay would have awarded the ball to the Razorbacks a) if all of the players had continued to pursue the fumbled ball and b) a Razorback had recovered the ball during this pursuit.
“Several players did appear to stop during the action, thus ending the play,” Austin continued. “In this case replay has nothing to do but let the play stand.” SEC Network host Dari Nowkhah summarized what he’d heard from the SEC Office this way:
“The whistle blew, players kind of gave up on the play because of the whistle. If they had never given up on the play and Razorback had recovered it immediately before any of that happened, or even after the whistle — if everybody still went for that football and nobody had let up, it could have been reviewed and given to Arkansas.”
So, based on what Austin and Nowkhah are saying, it seems like part of the rule would required that all players pursue the fumbled ball. But that’s absurd.
On no single play can you expect all players to take the same exact action. In every case, less than all players will pursue a fumbled ball.
Indeed, in its official statement, the SEC Office says that the number of players pursuing the fumbled ball has nothing to do with the rule:
Statement on play at :30 to go in fourth quarter of Arkansas-Auburn game. pic.twitter.com/L1UQRlFx2M— SEC Officiating (@SECOfficiating) October 11, 2020
So, in the SEC’s own words, the issue doesn’t boil down to the number of players involved — it comes down to whether or not immediate action was taken.
Which is funny, in the same way it was “funny” that the SEC Office saddled the Razorbacks with Florida and Georgia as their SEC East opponents this fall. It’s funny because multiple Razorbacks did sprint toward the fumbled football in an effort to recover it.
One of them, linebacker Grant Morgan (#31), was even held on his way there, as you can see in the replay below:
Arkansas should be 2-1 right now and nothing you say can convince me otherwise… pic.twitter.com/CTGwjwxanT— Tye Richardson ? (@TyeSportsRadio) October 11, 2020
Cornerback Joe Foucha pursued the ball to the very end, and recovered it.
Terry McAuley, a veteran NFL referee, has no skin in the game but he believed this was such a bad call that he felt obligated to chime in. “A player from each team immediately continue to play,” McAuley Tweeted on Saturday night. “That would be considered continuing action and the ball is ultimately and clearly recovered by the defense. In my opinion, this should have been reversed and the ball given to Arkansas.”
More seasoned officiating pros have sided with McAuley on this.
Here’s Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating:
The SEC knows it messed it up here, and is talking itself into circles to prove otherwise. Nix’s pass “is obviously backwards,” Nowkhah said on SEC Football Final. “The league knows it, everybody knows it, the replay officials knows it as well. Problem is whistle blows, players give up on the play, it’s over, there’s nothing you can do at that point, you cannot change possession. It’s a difficult situation.”
Actually, no, it’s not that difficult of a situation.
It appears that the SEC made up new rules, on the fly, in order to ensure Auburn kept the ball on the call that would decide the game. The rulebook says nothing about the need for all players to pursue a fumbled football, and now an SEC Network officiating analyst is acting like that’s part of the letter of the law.
The SEC itself declares that the football must recovered in the “immediate” action following a fumble, yet it’s clear to all that Joe Foucha did that as soon as he could get it, after he and an Auburn player battled for it, four or five seconds after the fumble.
Here’s how Arkansas beat reporter Otis Kirk feels about the SEC’s sorry excuses for the ruling:
Essentially, the game came down to a new rule that didn’t exist before and doesn’t officially exist now. Based on what the SEC is trying to spin out of thin air, the unofficial rule is that “immediate” means the ball must be recovered within three seconds of a fumble.
It sure would have been helpful to know these things on the front end. The least the SEC could do now is not only admit it’s wrong, but admit it had to create new rules on the fly in order to make sure Arkansas got screwed yet again.
Afterward, Sam Pittman was asked whether he felt like this game was taken away from him:
“I don’t want to say that,” he replied. “I mean, there’s a lot of opportunities that we could have won the football game, done things better, but the players were like you’d think. Last week we were jovial and cheerful, and this week they were down, and they are hurting.”
“And they should be. They put a lot of sweat into getting prepared for Auburn, and they did a nice job of doing it. And I guess at the end, they had one more play a little bit better than ours. Neither one of our linebackers practiced last week. They practice in shells, we never hit them. I mean, we got a lot of injuries out there, but they’re fighting their butt off.”
“And our tackling was nearly as good as what it normally is. I don’t know what to attribute to that — whether it was fine running by [Auburn tailback] Tank [Bigsby], or was it slippery and we were slipping off of tackles? I don’t know — probably a combination of both.”
“But we’ll get back to work and become a better tackling team next week.”
“What a load of crap”
Razorback analyst Trey Biddy echoes the feeling of thousands of Hog fans in this deep-dive post game recap:
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