Miami-Duke kickoff return: what needs to change

The story of the Miami-Duke kickoff return continued on Sunday. The ACC released a statement detailing the many errors made by the officiating crew and the replay booth. The league also handed down a brief suspension of the crews, but did not fire them.

Late Saturday night, we showed you the visuals of the play and merely documented the errors made inside Wallace Wade Stadium. Here, we’re going to put forth several rule and policy recommendations, but first, given the ACC’s statement on Sunday, it’s worth making a few basic points about the play in a larger context.


It is true that if the officials or the replay booth had correctly ruled that the Miami player’s knee was down before one of the eight laterals leading to the Hurricanes’ touchdown, the game would have ended. There would have been no additional play, courtesy of an untimed down.

However, in Duke’s larger case that the game’s outcome should be overturned, the portion of the play which stands most firmly in the Blue Devils’ corner is the act of Miami receiver Rashawn Scott running onto the field before the touchdown was scored, without a helmet:

In short, a player on a sideline ran like a wild man onto the field of play. The ACC ruled that this would not have changed the touchdown call, due to the fact (and it is a fact) that such a player in such a situation is not deemed as a participating player who is part of the play. This makes the subsequent penalty a dead-ball foul.

Narrowly, that is true.


Scott’s act occurred in these contexts, relative to current college football rules:

A) Continuous action on a field without a helmet is deemed a personal foul, which is not a dead-ball foul.

B) Celebrations BEFORE SCORING TOUCHDOWNS are viewed as taunting penalties which WIPE OUT THE TOUCHDOWN. They are spot fouls.

Two things need to be said here:

First, the rule applied in Statement A refer to live, participating players as deemed by the rules. Therefore, the idea that a personal foul was not committed is entirely valid, and possibly correct by strict rulebook interpretation. However, if a player is RUNNING within the field of play, exactly when and where is the line crossed between “non-participation” and “endangering player safety,” which is the point of assessing a personal foul?

(Side note: Playing without a helmet is dumb, but it should never be a personal foul. Nevertheless, the rule is on the books, and college football — if you’ve ever read anything I’ve said about its rulebook — is notoriously inconsistent in applying rules to very similar situations.)

Second, the rule applied to Statement B — spelled out in Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1, Subsection a, Provision 1, Example e (this is on page FR-93 of the rulebook, so that you’re not flying blind) — refers to the ballcarrier celebrating before reaching the goal line, not anyone else.

Yes, Example d — right before Example e on page FR-93 — makes a general reference to players, plural, without citing the ballcarrier. However, the umbrella-like determination that Rashawn Scott was a “non-participating player” might keep the play a dead-ball foul.

As it is, the rules are vague and do not expressly say how many different penalties Scott committed on that play.

Is this the end of the story? Not even close.


Before getting into the policy recommendation portion of all this, there are two more things to be said about why Scott’s act, not the missed knee-down instance or the missed illegal block, represents Duke’s best argument in this situation.

First, a lot of Miami fans brought up the entirely valid and reasonable point that the Hurricanes were jobbed by the referees all game long. The wild disparity in penalties — with Miami getting tagged 23 times for 194 yards, including multiple dubious pass interference flags leading up to Duke’s go-ahead touchdown (which was not entirely a sure thing) in the final 10 seconds — gives Miami fans more than enough reason to say that reversing the outcome of this game is a laughable notion.


What people miss about this larger theater of events is that on replay, the booth works with the angles it has available. The view which CONCLUSIVELY showed that the Miami runner’s knee was down (pre-lateral) was NOT a view the booth had available:

Therefore, the idea that the replay booth’s worst failure was the knee-down call seems tenuous at best. Replay booths often get television angles which don’t offer certainty. A press photographer had the definitive angle, but not a booth.

Moreover, the knee-down call was what one can refer to as a “sight call.” Generally speaking, “sight calls” refer to basic bang-bang plays: Did the ball hit the ground? Did the toe hit out of bounds? Did the foot cross the line of scrimmage before the pass was thrown? Was the pass a lateral or a forward pass? Those are sight judgments, not interpretations of a rule or more administrative kinds of issues. The same is true for illegal blocks — did they occur from the side or in the back? Errors were made in those instances, but not the kinds which can override outcomes — they were missed calls, just as one would have at any prior point in the game.

Missing a 12th player on the field… without a helmet… in an act of premature celebration, violating several provisions of unsportsmanlike conduct rules found on page FR-93? That is not so much a sight error as it is a procedural breakdown.

Yes, the rules pertaining to Rashawn Scott might be vague, but given everything else about college football’s points of emphasis in terms of limiting celebrations and not allowing helmetless players to be on the field during a play, how can the sport — not just the ACC — view that play as kosher, to the extent that Miami keeps the touchdown and the win?

This was not a sight error; it was a procedural and structural error relating to the integrity of the game. (Again, helmetless players should not be dinged for personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conduct, much as celebrations should not be penalized unless the opposing team is specifically being shown up. The point, though, is that college football’s endless rulebook inconsistencies remain unaddressed and cry out for attention.)

That last notion — integrity of the game — is the kind of reason an outcome can and should be overturned. Sight calls get missed — that happens. More administrative and foundational errors? That’s a different story.

The second (and final) point to be made here? The rulebook still allows for Rashawn Scott’s action to be penalized in such a way that the Miami touchdown would not (should not?) have counted, even when one accounts for the limited and/or vague provisions in Rule 9, Section 2.

I present to you Rule 9-2-3-c, on page FR-95:

“c. An obviously unfair act not specifically covered by the rules occurs during the game (A.R. 4-2-1-II and 9-2-3-I).

PENALTY—The referee may take any action he considers equitable, which includes directing that the down be repeated, including assessing a 15-yard penalty, awarding a score, or suspending or forfeiting the game [S27].”

Given that in basketball, non-participating players stepping onto the court during play is a technical foul (something which also applies to fans and cheerleaders), and given that in hockey, too many men on the ice is a penalty, common sense tells us that Scott committed a grave no-no on par with those acts in other sports.

However, this is not “another sport,” it’s football. What precedent truly exists for Duke to say that through discretionary means — using the powers of prudential judgment — the outcome of this game should be reversed?

Remember this from the 1954 Cotton Bowl?

When Alabama’s Tommy Lewis flew off the bench to tackle Rice’s Dicky Maegle, the referees used common sense to award Maegle a touchdown. This was an incredibly rare if not unprecedented situation. There was no replay. The sport did not have the cluttered rule- and policy-based infrastructure it has now. Referees used sound prudential judgment in what was not a question of “Did he or didn’t he?”, but rather, “What should be done in response to this obvious event we just saw?”

If other rules are vague and do not lend total clarity to the Miami-Duke ending, Rule 9-2-3-c, informally known as “The Tommy Lewis Principle,” demands that Duke be given the win… this, even though Miami was jobbed on a number of sight calls, which (as established) are different from procedural ones.

We are now ready to make some rule and policy recommendations.


Flowing from this chaotic series of events, college football shouldn’t just tweak some some isolated rules and provisions. It should move to radically simplify the rulebook to the extent that dozens upon dozens of inconsistencies are weeded out of the rule infrastructure.

To wit:

If a game’s last play — as in the case of Miami-Duke — is incorrectly officiated such that the outcome is swung in one direction or the other, college football rules should be both specific in saying that the outcome may be reversed by the league office and/or by a relevant governing body, and elastic in saying that the reversal may occur even if a proper ruling would have mandated one more play.

As a clarification of the above point, reversals of outcomes should be permitted in the case of administrative errors from a booth or officiating crew, not (merely) sight errors, as defined earlier in this article.

As an additional clarification, reversals of outcomes should be permitted (even if proper rulings would have mandated one more untimed down) in the event that one team (Miami, in this case) committed what one would refer to as “behavioral” penalties not expressly related to football acts. In other words, if a pass is ruled incomplete but should have been ruled complete, that’s a football-based sight play. Doing what Rashawn Scott did is a behavioral matter which — given its stupidity — leaves the offending team with no real argument to make. Penalties of that nature should not carry the relief or benefit of gaining an extra untimed down, let alone the touchdown and subsequent victory the Hurricanes received.

Other rule changes which need to occur, in the name of consistency:

If 12-men-on-the-field is a penalty for “participating” players, it should apply to non-participating players as well.

If being a participating player without a helmet is a personal foul, the same should be true for non-participating players in the field of play. (The non-participating player running onto the field of play is, one could argue, a far more egregious endangerment of player safety than for a participating player to lose a helmet through no fault of his own.)

If a ballcarrier celebrating before reaching the goal line is a penalty which prevents a touchdown, then celebrations by players not supposed to be in the field of play should also prevent touchdowns if occurring before the ball reaches the goal line. These and other rule inconsistencies need to be addressed, and on matters completely unrelated to the topic at hand. College football could do itself a world of good by leading on this issue, all while the NFL continues to insult our intelligence with its interpretations of various plays which used to be relatively uncomplicated.


All these recommendations, as much as they would improve and clarify the rulebook, are still — in the end — insufficient. Saving the best for last, the one thing this whole Miami-Duke incident MUST bring to college football is as follows:

Conference. Command. Centers. With. Trained. Replay. Specialists. And. Officiating. Supervisors. Right. There. In. The. Room. With. Executives (at least one). From. The. Conference. Office.

Let us not pretend that the TV money flowing through college sports cannot and should not be able to finance replay command centers. It is woefully apparent that individual replay booth review teams are unequipped to handle the tasks they’re being given. This is not even a criticism of these reviewers. They are overwhelmed and should not be handed this immense responsibility. Each Power 5 conference should be able to afford its own command center, with trained experts and a league supervisor of officials in the room, alongside a league executive who monitors the process and can step in as an immediate consultant-and-ruler in emergency situations. (For the Group of Five, ESPN could surely facilitate a command center in Bristol, given that those smaller conferences don’t benefit from television money to the extent the Power 5 leagues do.)

Why is it that the ACC or any Power 5 league office has to release a statement the day after Miami-Duke happens? Why shouldn’t one of John Swofford’s football-specific lieutenants be in a command center with the ACC’s supervisor of officials, accompanying trained replay specialists to provide IMMEDIATE relief and guidance, such that the right ruling ALWAYS GETS MADE on a play?

This is such an obvious reform, one which would finally bring college football into the sunlight of transparency and immediacy in addressing replay review. NINE MINUTES OF REVIEW wound up missing all sorts of errors by the on-field officials. The ACC said how wrong it all was roughly 15 hours later, but that didn’t do any favors for Duke, which is now a game behind North Carolina for the ACC Coastal lead.

We can argue about the various rulebook recommendations mentioned above, but dammit, if Miami-Duke doesn’t give us college football conference command centers for replay resolutions in 2016 (maybe 2017, but the announcement of a transition should at least precede the 2016 season…), this debacle will have been in vain.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |