January 11, 2011
Monday night's BCS Championship showdown between Auburn and Oregon was the most watched broadcast in the history of cable television, which might make running back Michael Dyer's 37-yard "roll-n-run" to set up Auburn's game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter the single most disagreed-upon play: Down, or not down?
On the field, the officials ruled that Dyer was not down, and in the replay booth, another official upheld that judgement on replay, giving Auburn a first down with field-goal range with the score tied at 19 and barely a minute remaining. The Tigers subsequently milked what was left of the clock, sent out the field-goal team for the game-winning chip shot and walked out national champions, 22-19. So, officially, not down. No one is about to take Auburn's new trophies away. (Not over that play, anyway.) Auburn may score on the drive if Dyer's ruled down, and, at worst, is likely headed to overtime with a chance to win.
OK, but replay officials aren't exactly beacons of truth and justice. Let's skip the middle man and go right to the source here: Does the rule book say he's down, or not down? That, too, really depends on how you're inclined to interpret the relevant rule (emphasis added):
ARTICLE 3. A live ball becomes dead and an official shall sound his whistle or declare it dead:
a. When it goes out of bounds other than a kick that scores after touching the uprights or crossbar, when a ball carrier is out of bounds, or when a ball carrier is so held that his forward progress is stopped. When in question, the ball is dead.
b. When any part of the ball carrier's body, except his hand or foot, touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body, except his hand or foot. ...
Usually, the question is a straightforward decision over whether a runner's knee is on the ground, and in Dyer's case, it clearly wasn't: His feet leave the ground as he rolls over the top of Duck safety Eddie Pleasant on the tackle, and hit the ground again without his knee or calf or any part of his lower leg making contact with the turf. But it's written just vaguely enough that Dyer's could very well be considered down when his wrist initially hits the turf, before he re-planted his hand to push off the ground from a kind of three-point stance.
Wait a minute, his wrist? Well, yeah. If that sounds like splitting hairs, tell it to Arkansas' All-American tight end, D.J. Williams, who had a virtually identical touchdown called back on review in last week's Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State because, yes, he used his wrist for balance:
In Williams' case, the officials (a Big 12 crew) drew a clear distinction between the wrists and the hand, and a wrist on the turf means you're down and the play's over. You may not agree with that interpretation, either. But on these two critical plays over the last week...
... either both runners are down, or both are alive. It can't be one or the other. Yet in the last week, it's gone both ways, and a championship may have been decided in that gray area. Oregon just has to deal with it. But it would be nice if there was some clarification before it happens again.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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