West Virginia coach Holgorsen perplexed by controversial penalties in Oklahoma loss

West Virginia running back Kennedy McKoy’s big run against Oklahoma was negated by a controversial penalty. (Reuters/USA Today Sports)
West Virginia running back Kennedy McKoy’s big run against Oklahoma was negated by a controversial penalty. (Reuters/USA Today Sports)

They might get lost in the craziness. Overshadowed by the ludicrous offensive firepower that fueled Oklahoma to a 59-56 win over West Virginia, and to the Big 12 championship game. But Mountaineer fans haven’t forgotten the two critical penalties that changed the shape of the shootout. And after the dust settled, neither had West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen.

“I don’t get it,” Holgorsen said resignedly of one touchdown-negating flag and another that essentially wiped away a score. “Don’t understand it, never will.”

Holgorsen was asked about the penalties once during a brief postgame news conference. He spoke about them twice. And each time, he was perplexed.

“Just a shame,” he said unprompted. When pushed for more, he continued: “Obviously I gotta be careful with what I say, but I don’t understand in a game like this how you take those off the board. I don’t get it. I don’t understand it, I don’t get it, and I never will.”

The controversial penalties

The first of the two calls that wiped a West Virginia touchdown off the board was less controversial. It was an offensive pass interference flag that brought back an early second-quarter touchdown catch by Gary Jennings Jr. It cost the Mountaineers seven points – they ended up turning the ball over on downs – but it was less consequential than the latter of the two penalties.

The second penalty – the one at the forefront of West Virginia fans’ minds Saturday morning – came early in the fourth quarter, with the teams trading touchdowns. The Mountaineers took possession down three, and on the first play of their drive, Kennedy McKoy scampered down the right sideline. He nearly scored. Instead, he set up a first-and-goal from inside the 5-yard line …

… That is, until the referees brought the ball back some 50 yards for T.J. Simmons’ prolonged block on an Oklahoma defensive back:

West Virginia was hit with a personal foul because Simmons continued to block while he and the defender were out of bounds. The ball came back 15 yards from the spot of the foul – all the way back across midfield. It was effectively a 50-yard penalty.

And West Virginia fans were livid, because it’s a penalty that rarely gets called. But that doesn’t mean the refs were incorrect to call it.

What does the rulebook say?

Article 7.c of the NCAA rulebook makes the ruling explicitly clear. Under the “Late Hit, Action Out of Bounds” heading, it states (emphasis ours):

Late Hit, Action Out of Bounds

ARTICLE 7. a. There shall be no piling on, falling on or throwing the body
on an opponent after the ball becomes dead (A.R. 9-1-7-I).

b. No opponent shall tackle or block the runner when he is clearly out of
bounds or throw him to the ground after the ball becomes dead.

c. It is illegal for any player to be clearly out of bounds when he initiates a block against an opponent who is out of bounds. The spot of the foul is where the blocker crosses the sideline in going out of bounds.

Shall we reiterate, just in case there’s any confusion? “It is illegal for any player to be clearly out of bounds” – which Simmons was – “when he initiates a block against an opponent who is out of bounds” – which the Oklahoma defender was.

The word “initiate” might create a bit of confusion. If a player begins blocking in bounds, can he follow through with the block out of bounds? But the last sentence, the stipulation about “where the blocker crosses the sideline,” hints at the proper interpretation. So it seems to have been the correct call, even if it seemed to be a silly one in the moment.

The penalty was incredibly costly

Two plays later, the true game-changing play arrived. A few minutes after West Virginia had the ball mere feet away from Oklahoma’s end zone, Oklahoma had it in West Virginia’s:

Curtis Bolton’s fumble return held up as the decisive score. And Holgorsen, despite bemoaning the penalties, admitted as much after the game.

“I don’t get it, don’t understand it, never will,” he said. “But the 14 points we gave them” – Oklahoma also scored on a scoop-and-score in the first half – “is the difference in the game.”

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