Officiating in focus: ball spotting is hard (even for replay reviewers)

When college football fans and commentators talk about bad officiating decisions every Saturday (or Thursday night, or Friday night), the biggest complaints generally revolve around pass interference, holding, and completed passes. The stakes are high, and holding penalties are so commonplace in the sport that the decision to either make or withhold a call on them is crucial. Completed passes, or the pass interference penalties which prevent passes from being completed, carry obvious significance in the sport. Therefore, you’re going to get spirited debates and a lot of “YOU’RE MISSING A GOOD GAME, REF!” exclamations on a typical college football Saturday in relationship to those kinds of calls.

Personal foul and targeting penalties raise the ire of a lot of fans as well, especially when receivers duck their heads late in an action sequence or a hit appears to have been initiated with a shoulder, which should be acceptable by rule unless delivered to the head of the opponent. One could tick off a list of other calls that seem to get a lot of attention from week to week.

In fact, since you’re reading this, why don’t you make a list of the five kinds of calls that upset you the most. We’re not talking about calls or non-calls, just the larger categories of calls which make your blood boil more than anything else.

Take a pen.

Gather your thoughts.

Okay, here you go:

5. ______

4. ______

3. ______

2. ______

1. ______

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There are no wrong answers here, but I wanted you to go through the process of listing your foremost grievances to see where you stand.

Now, I’m going to bet that for a great majority of you, the topic of “ball spotting” did not make your top five list above. Maybe the reader feedback in the comments section provided below will prove me wrong, but it has seemed to me that ball spotting just doesn’t get the same level of widespread disapproval other football officiating components receive every Saturday and every season.

This is, to me, a woefully under-analyzed part of officiating — not because it’s necessarily easy (in some situations yes, in others, anything but), but because replay seems to look at it less often than other kinds of calls, and because calls don’t get overturned as much. Yet, few things are more elemental to the sport than marking the ball in the place where a run did in fact end. The failure to do this properly influenced one game on Saturday night and almost tipped the scales of another.

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Let’s start with the game whose outcome was not ultimately influenced by a bad ball spot… but could have been.

Mississippi State narrowly missed beating LSU, missing a game-winning field goal attempt in the final seconds. On the Bulldogs’ final drive, though, something bizarre happened (but something which has been known to happen in the chaos of a two-minute drill). Mississippi State gained nine yards on a pass in which it needed 10. Because the clock stops on first downs, it’s very important that a ball is spotted before or after the first-down marker. Mississippi State should have been forced to run its hurry-up offense with the clock running. Yet, the officiating crew marked the nine-yard pass as a 10-yard gain, giving the Bulldogs a first down. The clock did stop (albeit briefly), and MSU was able to continue on its drive.

The big plot complication in that scenario above is that with the two-minute drill and MSU wanting to preserve timeouts, the act of a replay review would have given the Bulldogs a free timeout. Yet, it was in LSU’s interests to see that play get reviewed so that the Bulldogs might have had to struggle to get a first down. The call should have been reviewed, but it wasn’t. If it was, there’s no way the original mark would have held up.

Ball spotting is hard.

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Then came the Oregon-Michigan State game, in which UO quarterback Vernon Adams clearly reached the nose of the ball a good two inches beyond the end of the yellow line ESPN/ABC uses on its broadcasts.

Other bloggers rightly and accurately noted that the yellow line is merely a representation of where the TV broadcast thinks the first down line actually is. This is a true and factual statement. However:

1) The line was fundamentally accurate in this case:

This IS a relatively accurate rendering of the line to gain — not perfect, but within half an inch (the image is magnified, not representing the actual distance a viewer would have seen on TV). However, that’s not even the most important point.

This is the important point:

2) The yellow line should definitely be used as a tool for helping the replay booth make ball-spotting calls (it currently is not) for a very simple reason: It offers a reference point.

Even if the line is severely inaccurate, being able to identify where a run ended relative to that yellow line would help the process of spotting the ball.

In the Vernon Adams case, the fact that he reached the ball multiple inches past the yellow line certainly would have given him the first down. The image above — with the yellow line involved — shows that most of the ball was still spotted short of the yellow line, with the nose of the ball being in the middle of the line. Oregon lost several inches on the mark.

This was AFTER a replay review process.

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It’s one thing when live-ball officials miss calls. Ball spotting, especially in pile-ups near goal lines or in fourth-and-inches situations, can be impossible to do. Officials often have a very difficult job here. (On other occasions, they don’t — in the Arizona State-Texas A&M game from week one, a side judge missed an easy call by a full yard, and that call was in fact overturned.)

What is hard to come to grips with is the continuing reality of replay booths missing easy calls by considerable margins. Ball spotting, if it’s this difficult, should be addressed with either laser-sensor or microchip-in-ball technology that takes care of the problem then and there.

It’s the 21st century, college football. Let’s pay more attention to ball spotting and get this thing fixed.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |

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