The 10 Worst Officiating Mistakes Of The 2013 Season

Officiating college football is a much tougher job than it used to be. The speed and power of the athletes have increased, but the speed of the game has increased as well. Faster athletes running hurry-up-no-huddle offenses with spread formations and more downfield passes make life a lot harder for the on-field arbiters of college football. This is a demanding job, and such a realization needs to enter any discussion of college football officiating.

We’ll have a lot more to say on officiating as the season approaches in the latter half of August, but for now, sit back and relive the 2013 season through the prism of 10 officiating gaffes.



— These are not examples of bad rules, a separate issue when college football officiating is examined in full. To be a bit more precise, this list does not include instances in which bad rules were properly applied by on-field officials. Those are not officiating mistakes; they’re rulebook flaws insufficiently addressed by policies.

— You will nevertheless see on this list a few instances in which a given detail, sometimes (but not always) poor officiating, prevented replay from being available as a means to overturn a call or otherwise resolve a situation. That’s another nuance which will be talked about in the coming weeks, but all 10 of these calls involve improper applications of rules or procedures.

— Only one targeting-rule citation is allowed on this list. The 2013 season easily could have featured a list of 30 atrocious applications of the targeting rule. We’re not going to cram this list with targeting situations.



In the Thursday night game between these two schools, Air Force quarterback Nate Romine was about to throw a forward pass. In a manner that evoked the tuck rule, Romine then lost the ball as he attempted to bring it back to his body. Incomplete pass, right?

There was just one problem: The ball traveled backwards when it squirted out of Romine’s hands. The play was ruled an incomplete forward pass. The ball didn’t travel in that direction, however.


The next two examples on this list both involve non-measurements in situations that demanded them. They’re both included on the list because they involve errors from opposite sides of the issue.

In this Friday night game from the past season, Louisville was driving in the final minute of the first half. A completed pass by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater brought the Cardinals very close to the first-down marker at the Connecticut 46. There could be debate about what constitutes a “close call” or not with respect to first-down measurements, but it’s generally accepted that if there’s reasonable doubt about the matter, a team has the right to ask for a measurement. At the very least, it would be bizarre for an officiating crew to refuse to honor a request for measurement if the differential (short of or beyond the first-down marker) was under half a yard.

Yet, with a minimal degree of distance between ball and first-down marker, the officials in East Hartford, Conn., refused to give Louisville a measurement. The Cardinals ran a quick running play to convert second down and inches, but they lost enough time that they were able to run only one more play after that. As a point of historical perspective, this exact situation also played out at the end of the first half of the 2012 Alamo Bowl between Oregon State and Texas.


This was a case in which an offensive team received a first-down spot, but the defensive team wasn’t given the benefit of a measurement.

Navy, playing defense, led San Jose State by a 38-30 score in the final 30 seconds of regulation in this Friday night game from November. San Jose State faced third and 10 at the Navy 12. Spartan quarterback David Fales hit receiver Thomas Tucker on a pass that gained roughly 10 yards to the 2. The spot looked very close, and if anything, Tucker appeared to be slightly short of the marker. Yet, the point is not to say that Tucker was or wasn’t past the marker. The essential element of the play is that it was really close, certainly not more than the length of the ball. That’s a measurement-warranting situation, especially at the end of a game.

Yes, it’s true that a measurement would have given San Jose State, without timeouts, a clock stoppage, but a measurement might have revealed that the Spartans were short of the first down. Fales was a lights-out quarterback last season, so Navy would have welcomed a fourth-and-short situation in which SJSU might have been tempted to run the ball.

Yet, that’s all side dressing.

The bottom-line reality is that a measurement was needed but not performed. San Jose State was given an unchecked first down. The Spartans received the benefit of a clock stoppage without having to sweat out a fourth down. They scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to send the game into overtime at 38-all.



There’s not a lot to be said about this play. Just know that Georgia’s Ray Drew was EJECTED for this glorified shove and slight head knock (with the head knock being the secondary source of contact after the shove with the arms).

Also know that this, like other targeting plays, is reviewed. How did the ejection not get overturned on review? Sometimes, you wonder what replay-booth reviewers are doing. This was one of those times.


See the 1:06 mark of this clip, the overhead view of the play that led a lot of college football fans to quite reasonably opine that the Big 12 was, to use a popular phrase, “protecting the bellcow”:

The side-camera views are inconclusive, at least more than the overhead-camera view was. From the overhead camera, it’s apparent that the knees and posterior of Texas running back Johnathan Gray had not touched the ground before he lost the ball in a pile while trying to get more yardage. Notice as well that the lead official said Gray was ruled “down by contact,” as opposed to citing the cessation of forward progress. Had forward progress been the reason for the whistle, the play could not have been reviewed. The ruling on the field would have been debatable, but acceptable. A “down by contact” ruling, on the other hand, did not hold up under scrutiny… or at least, it shouldn’t have. Yet, another replay-booth reviewer didn’t demonstrate good eyesight, which (recurring theme alert!) is supposed to be the one thing a replay-booth reviewer needs more than anything else.




With under four minutes left in regulation, Houston — expected to crush lowly South Florida at home — was clinging to an uncomfortable 28-23 lead. South Florida drove into Houston territory, and seemed to have gained the upper hand when a pass was completed inside the Cougars’ 5-yard line. Subsequent replays showed no contact being initiated by the South Florida receiver. Yet, the on-field official ruled offensive pass interference.

It’s true that offensive pass interference is generally not called as frequently as it should be. It was and is bitterly ironic, therefore, that the penalty was called in a situation that clearly didn’t demand a piece of yellow laundry. South Florida was plainly denied a chance to take a 29-28 lead into the final minutes of regulation. Maybe Houston would have scored, but that was for the players, not the officials, to decide.

The Bulls of South Florida were given, as Colonel Sherman Potter said on M*A*S*H*, a helping of “bull cookies.”



There are certain aspects of officiating mechanics that have to be followed in order for plays to be subject to review. The rules and policies of college football shouldn’t be structured in such a way, but they are in all too many cases.

One example of this problem emerged in a Thursday night game from September between Clemson and North Carolina State. Here’s the relevant quote from the Associated Press game story:

“Receiver Bryan Underwood, who stepped out along the sideline earlier in the game to cut short a long run, sprinted around the right side for what appeared to be an 83-yard touchdown to tie the game at 13 midway through the third. But officials ruled Underwood stepped on the sideline at the Clemson 47 and blew the play dead, making it an unreviewable play — TV replays appeared to show him remaining inbounds — that led to boos raining down from the Carter-Finley Stadium stands.”

Here’s the video of the play:

This replay-review policy obviously needs to be amended, but don’t let that reality obscure the fact that the official on the sideline needed to avoid blowing the whistle. The play could have gone for a touchdown, and if Underwood had stepped out, replay could have corrected the error.

Sorry about that “tweet,” Wolfpack. [Insert a The Price Is Right sad trombone sound here.]



One of the more remarkable aspects of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game, on the short list of the most controversial games from 2013 (a top-three lock and very possibly number one), is that the endgame nightmare wasn’t the only appallingly bad piece of officiating to emerge from the night in Tempe, Ariz.

In the first quarter, Arizona State missed a field goal. The field goal was called good.

“Wait — when did this happen?” If you’re asking that question, it’s because ESPN never really gave the matter extended examination… and because that whole endgame fiasco drowned out the previous 59 minutes of action at Sun Devil Stadium.

Here is the video of the field goal attempt from ESPN. You don’t get a replay in this clip, but you can freeze-frame or otherwise inch along the video to follow the trajectory of the kick. Notice where the kick ends up relative to the upright. A reasonable person would conclude that the ball went over the upright. (I think it was slightly outside, but it’s reasonable to say the ball went over the upright. That’s a fair assessment of the kick.)

The NFL’s rules on field goals use a specific phrase, “between the outside edges,” to offer a little more leeway to kickers. The whole of the ball doesn’t have to be fully inside the upright. As long as no part of the ball is outside the upright, a ball can go partly — even substantially — over the upright and still result in a successful kick. More of the ball can go over the upright than inside it, and a team can still get three points.

The college rulebook, found here, is not as generous on this matter. (Just click on the first Google search link, and you’ll be directed to the rulebook.)

On page FR-82, here is Rule 8, Section 4, Article 1. a., pertaining to field goals:

“A field goal shall be scored for the kicking team if a drop kick or place kick passes over the crossbar between the uprights of the receiving team’s goal before it touches a player of the kicking team or the ground. The kick shall be a scrimmage kick but may not be a free kick.”

The language is simpler and free of added criteria. If the ball isn’t between the uprights — which, at the very least, should mean that most of the ball is inside the upright, not over it — it’s not a good kick.

This was clearly not a good kick, according to that standard. And you thought the endgame was the only part of Wisconsin-Arizona State that was messed up by the officials.

A postscript on this rule: The college football rulebook’s replay policies state that if the flight of a ball on a field goal goes above the upright, the kick cannot be reviewed. Only kicks whose trajectories remain below the top of the upright can be reviewed. Yes, it’s an awful policy attached to the rulebook, but of course, the actual call here was missed, so this does qualify as an officiating mistake more than a policy-based or procedural flaw.


First, the video of a play every diehard college football fan watched last September:

Yes, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave bumped into the back of one of his offensive linemen, creating doubt as to whether his knee actually hit the ground. (It did, as photos shown later on the internet, but not during the live broadcast, indicated.)

Yes, Stave also spent way too much time chatting with (or looking at) the head referee instead of getting right to the line and taking command of the situation.

Yet, there was and is no question that the officials did not react properly, and compounded their error by not giving Wisconsin appropriate relief once this wacky sequence ran its course.

You can watch the video a number of times and then realize that this next image existed with fewer than four seconds left on the scoreboard clock:

This specific scene is and has been a problem in college football over the years. It happened to Washington State at the end of the 1998 Rose Bowl. You will consistently see the umpire standing at the line, preventing an offense from snapping the ball in what can generally be referred to as an "urgent-clock"  endgame situation. If this is supposed to be a part of officiating mechanics, it shouldn't continue to be. If it's not a part of accepted officiating practice, it's baffling that it persists to the extent it does. The Wisconsin-Arizona State finish was wild and improbable, but it was not quite unprecedented -- not in its entirety. The lead-up to the last three seconds was the unique part. The final few seconds, captured by this image, have been replicated many times before in college football's history.

This specific scene is and has been a problem in college football over the years. It happened to Washington State at the end of the 1998 Rose Bowl against Michigan. You will consistently see the umpire standing at the line, preventing an offense from snapping the ball in what can generally be referred to as an “urgent-clock” endgame situation. If this is supposed to be a part of officiating mechanics, it shouldn’t continue to be. If it’s not a part of accepted officiating practice, it’s baffling that it persists to the extent that it does. The Wisconsin-Arizona State finish was wild and improbable, but it was not quite unprecedented — not in its entirety, at any rate. The lead-up to the last three seconds was the unique part. The final few seconds, captured by this image, have been replicated many times before in college football’s history.

Wisconsin was wronged — severely and at great cost. That’s the first, second and third point to emphasize in this situation.

The fourth point to emphasize, though, is that quarterbacks should be taught to take charge of these situations and not care what the umpire might think. If the officials aren’t going to be proactive, quarterbacks just have to take over. Situations shouldn’t be allowed to get to this stage by officials, but quarterbacks must realize that if chaos reigns, they must take matters into their own hands.



It’s hard to make a worse call than that one.

It should be said that replay-review policies have been amended this season. Safety calls involving intentional grounding can now be reviewed.

At least this missed call generated reforms. If only all other missed calls involving nuanced rules or replay-review policies did the same.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |