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Dr. Saturday

Superlatives: The biggest gaffes of 2011

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

The best (and worst) of the season. Today: The worst plays of the year.

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10. Tommy Rees' unforced error.
Notre Dame came out of the gate fumbling, putting the ball on the ground on its first possession of the season and ultimately turning the ball over ten times en route to an 0-2 start. But none of those giveaways was as costly as the one that slipped from Rees' hand for no particular reason with a little over six minutes to play at Michigan, killing a Notre Dame drive on 1st-and-goal from the Wolverines' 9-yard line.

At that point, Notre Dame still led after back-to-back Michigan touchdowns, 24-21, and might have snuffed out the growing momentum with a touchdown that pushed the lead back to double digits. Instead, the momentary failure of Rees' motor skills put the ball on the ground, and set the stage for one of the wildest finishes of the year to tilt the Wolverines' way.

9. Michigan State roughs its way out of the Rose Bowl.

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Nursing a 42-39 lead with 1:40 to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, Wisconsin sent Brad Nortman out to punt on 4th-and-3 from its own 26-yard line. Michigan State's Keshawn Martin settled under the boot at midfield, hit the left sideline and took the ball all the way down to the Wisconsin 3 — just enough to add a little extra sting when the Badgers were awarded a new set of downs for a roughing-the-punter penalty against MSU's Isaiah Lewis.

Instead of first-and-goal for the Spartans,the flag allowed Wisconsin to calmly kill the final 1:25 on a succession of kneel-downs and punch its second consecutive ticket to the Rose Bowl.

8. Brad Wing's premature celebration.
Somehow, college football made it through the entire month of September without a peep from the NCAA's finger-wagging new unsportsmanlike conduct rule. And when it finally did rear its head on Oct. 8, where did its disapproving gaze land? On LSU's punter, of course.{YSP:MORE}

Brad Wing, a redshirt freshman originally from Melbourne, Australia, became the first player in a nationally televised game to have a touchdown stripped from the books for an in-play personal foul, thanks to the brief "What do you think of this?" gesture he flashed trailing Florida defenders before crossing the goal line at the end of a 50-yard sprint on a fake punt. Instead of six points, the Tigers took over with a new set of downs at the Florida 23, and eventually had to settle for a Drew Alleman field goal that extended their lead to 17-0 at the start of the second quarter. Thus were America's children made safe from the corrupting influence of showboating foreigners.

LSU won easily, 41-11.

7. Aaron White goes 'between the hedges,' and stays there.
Nov. 5: Georgia had already buried New Mexico in a 42-3 hole in the second quarter when White tracked down a touchdown pass from Aaron Murray in the corner of the end zone, sending him hurtling toward a handful of band members waiting to take the field for the halftime show. With two xylophones in his path, White leapt over the band equipment, landed sideways in the famed hedges of Sanford Stadium and stayed there until a posse of teammates arrived to yank him free.

The judges give White an "8" form, a "9" for execution and a "10" for the cheesy celebration after getting worked free.

6. Justin Blackmon coughs it up.
The really frightening part of Oklahoma State's emphatic comeback from a 20-3 halftime hole at Texas A&M: It could have turned into a borderline blowout the other way, if not for Justin Blackmon's goal line flub on a certain touchdown at the end of the third quarter:

Blackmon finished the day with 11 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown, and the Cowboys finished with a 30-29 win that set the course toward a Big 12 championship. But no single play stood out as clearly as Blackmon's boot.

5. Tajh Boyd gives one away.
Sept. 24: Undefeated Clemson is cruising with a 21-10 lead over Florida State in the third quarter, when quarterback Tajh Boyd gets a little… uh, ambitious?

Bjoern Werner's touchdown pulled the 'Noles within four points, but that was as close as they'd get: Boyd finished with 375 total yards and four touchdowns, including a 62-yard bomb to Sammy Watkins that slammed the door on a 35-30 win.

4. Syracuse's phantom point.
Sept. 24: The Orangemen score a touchdown to go ahead of Toledo, 29-27, with 2:22 to play. The ensuing extra point by Ross Krautman is quite clearly wide left, but inexplicably ruled good by officials on the field — then even more inexplicably upheld upon review, extending Syracuse's lead to three points. Toledo responded with a field goal of its own to send the game to overtime, where the Rockets were promptly picked off on the first play and lost on another Krautman kick, 33-30.

After the game, the Big East issued an official statement acknowledging that "the ruling on the field that the kick passed between the uprights was incorrect, and that the replay official made an error in failing to reverse that ruling." Had the wayward PAT been ruled correctly, Toledo's subsequent field goal would have been the game-winner.

3. USC's run for the money.

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Sept. 10: On the final play of the game, with Utah down 17-14 and lining up for a 41-yard field goal attempt to tie, 6-foot-7 USC offensive lineman Matt Kalil went up to swat the kick away — directly into the arms of USC cornerback Torin Harris, who took it the distance for an uncontested touchdown as time expired. As the Trojans stormed the field and gamblers everywhere fell off their barstools, an official dropped a flag: Most of USC's bench had begun sprinting onto the field as soon as Harris had begun sprinting toward the Utah end zone, triggering an easy penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Since USC's bench turned the field into a stampede long before Harris crossed the goal line, officials accordingly took his touchdown off the board and called the game as a 17-14 final. Las Vegas didn't quite see it that way, and to the great fortune of the bettors who put money on the Trojans as 8.5-point favorites to win, neither did the Pac-12: A couple hours after the game went final, the conference announced it had decided to count Harris' touchdown, on the grounds that the unsportsmanlike call against the USC bench was committed by players who weren't involved in an active play (a "dead-ball" penalty), and thus should not have triggered the new taunting rule.

The touchdown was restored, the new final score read USC 23/Utah 14, and Vegas sports books — most of which had already paid out to gamblers who bet against the Trojans — were forced to pony up again when the revised score meant the Trojans had covered.

2. Penn Wagers has no idea what's going on right now.
Trailing Utah State 23-17 and facing a do-or-die fourth down with less than a minute to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton connected with receiver LaVon Brazill on a 14-yard pass to the Utah State goal line. After some confusion, officials on the field signaled touchdown. Replays clearly showed Brazill's knee down at the one-yard line before he crossed the goal line.

A routine review, right? For almost any experienced referee in college football, probably. Unfortunately, the Potato Bowl got Penn Wagers:

In the first place, Wagers had no idea what the original call on the field was and made a complete hash of two separate attempts to explain it before going to replay. Then, after an extended conversation with the replay official in the booth, Wagers proceeded to "uphold" the touchdown in another meandering announcement and had to be called back to the replay phone to get the correct call. Which, after more than 15 minutes of utter confusion, he did: First down, Ohio, on the one-yard line.

That's how they finally played it, anyway. Based on Wager's ridiculous, contradictory explanations, I still have no idea what he actually ruled.

1. Kickers' long November.

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On Nov. 5, Alabama kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley combined to miss three field goals and have another blocked in a 9-6 loss to LSU, including an overtime miss that set up the winning kick for the Tigers. A week later, on Nov. 12, Boise State's BCS hopes came crashing down when Dan Goodale missed a 39-yarder on the final play of a 36-35 loss to TCU.

On Nov. 18, Oklahoma State suffered its only loss of the season after the usually reliable Quinn Sharp sent a crucial fourth quarter kick sailing over the upright at Iowa State, setting the Cowboys up for heartbreak in overtime. The next day, Oregon's chances of sneaking back into the championship went by the wayside when Alejandro Maldonado hooked the tying field goal to the left on the final snap of a 38-35 loss to USC.

By itself, a missed field goal isn't a "gaffe" any more than a holding penalty or a dropped pass. But out of the hundreds of botched kicks this year, those eight misses alone — over a span of just three weeks — changed the face of the season. If any one of them had connected, it might have been the Crimson Tide cruising into the championship game while LSU sweated it out, or the Broncos, Cowboys or Ducks waiting to break up the all-SEC rematch on the other side. If there's any lesson to the 2011 season, it's this: All else being equal, it always pays to have a kicker.

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Top photo of Rees via The Shredder.
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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