Yahoo Sports exclusive: Document shows untrained 'third party' overruled controversial targeting call in Pac-12 game

On the final play of the third quarter of Washington State’s game at USC on Sept. 21, Trojan quarterback JT Daniels scrambled and ducked to a knee. After he’d established himself as down, Washington State linebacker Logan Tago dove at him headfirst and initiated clear helmet-to-helmet contact. The play drew both a flag for roughing the passer and a review for targeting.

It was a clear enough call that both the in-stadium replay officials and the replay officials in the Pac-12’s command center in San Francisco ruled the play as a targeting penalty, according to an internal replay report obtained by Yahoo Sports. This call would have ejected Tago from the game. An independent veteran official who viewed the play also told Yahoo Sports it was “clear targeting.”

Targeting wasn’t called and Tago stayed in the game. The replay report obtained by Yahoo Sports states that “unfortunately a third party did not agree” with the call. That “third party” was Pac-12 general counsel and senior vice president of business affairs Woodie Dixon, Yahoo Sports sources have confirmed.

Dixon oversees football for the conference but is not a formally trained official. Dixon telephoned in his opinion that the play wasn’t targeting, sources said. According to the report, his opinion overruled both the trained officials in the stadium replay booth and in the league’s command center.

Washington State’s Logan Tago delivers a late blow to the head of USC quarterback JT Daniels. (Credit: ESPN)
Washington State’s Logan Tago delivers a late blow to the head of USC quarterback JT Daniels. (Credit: ESPN)

The internal report was written by Gary McNanna, the replay official in the booth that night. His word choice indicates he was irked. (McNanna did not return calls from Yahoo Sports seeking comment.) The targeting call was obvious enough that ESPN analyst Greg McElroy used the word “shocked” once and some form of the word “surprise” three times when Tago didn’t get ejected. According to the document: “Both the replay booth and the command center agreed this was a targeting foul, but unfortunately a third party did not agree so the targeting was removed and we went with the ruling on the field of [roughing the passer] with no targeting. This didn’t play well on TV. Reversed my stoppage for [targeting] to not [targeting].”

The box labeled “Grader Comments” two slots over reads: “Correctly Handled.”

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott issued a statement to Yahoo Sports denying there was a “third party” involved, as Dixon is typically in the command center and part of the replay collaboration team, in part because he has a full understanding of targeting. “Our instant replay supervisor [Bill Richardson] is the ultimate decision maker,” Scott said. “The misperception that in this case, the ultimate decision from the command center was made by someone other than the instant replay supervisor is a concern.”

According to officiating experts and college sports officials, the documented “third party” interference undermines both the Pac-12 officiating credibility and rhetoric surrounding player safety that’s tied to the focus on targeting.

The “third party” interference sparked outrage in the officiating world, where a buzz quickly spread about the incident.

“It’s unheard of,” said Terry McAulay, the rules analyst for NBC who spent 10 years as a coordinator of officials for the Big East and AAC. “I was appalled when I heard. The autonomy of officiating needs to be absolute. When there’s pressure from the outside brought to bear, it threatens the integrity of the game.”

An excerpt from the Pac-12’s USC-WSU official game report shows the play in question. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
An excerpt from the Pac-12’s USC-WSU official game report shows the play in question. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Four of the five major conferences – ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC – have some sort of replay center at their home offices to consult on calls during game days. The Big Ten is the only major conference that does not. Pac-12 officials confirmed Dixon has a voice in the room on game day, but cannot make final decisions. The other three leagues with review centers, according to officials in those leagues, do not give the executive in charge of football a voice in the on-field action.

Fox officiating expert Mike Pereira once worked as a consultant for the Pac-12 and said he never felt the pressure of outside interference from Dixon or Scott. But he agreed that the mere notion that someone from outside can influence the officiating crew is damning.

“It opens up a can of worms,” he said, as he’s not in favor of the outside model that the NFL uses. “You open up that thought, just that bit of perception, that favoritism may get factored in.”

This revelation comes at a fraught time for Pac-12 officiating, which has long been intertwined with ineptitude after a flurry of high-profile mishaps over the years. Four years ago, the league’s head of officiating, Tony Corrente, resigned in the middle of the season. (He declined comment for this story, as did current director of officiating David Coleman and current supervisor of replay officials Bill Richardson.) There’s even a popular #Pac12Officials Twitter hashtag and parody account: @GlassesRef.

Yahoo Sports spoke to multiple current and former Pac-12 coaches for perspective on what occurred. No current coaches wanted talk on the record, as they are fined if they talk about officiating. The general feeling was uneasiness.

“I think it’s extremely rare and even more concerning that officials would put that in an open document,” said a former Pac-12 coach. “I don’t know how that happens.”

The hit on Daniels wasn’t even the most controversial targeting no-call in that game, as USC’s Porter Gustin crushed Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew so violently with a helmet-to-helmet hit in the fourth quarter that it went viral when officials failed to call targeting. (Gustin had missed the first half of the Washington State game after a helmet-to-helmet hit knocked the helmet off Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger the previous week.) If it had been called, Gustin would have been thrown out and Washington State would have been poised to upset USC with a first-and-goal from the 10-yard-line. (Gustin, arguably USC’s most important defensive player, would have missed the first half of USC’s game at Arizona the next week, as well.)

Washington State ended up getting a 38-yard field goal blocked on that drive with 1:41 remaining and lost 39-36. Pereira told Yahoo Sports: “It’s one of the more obvious cases of targeting you can have. If you showed 99 college officials that play, 99 would say it was targeting.”

Washington State coach Mike Leach clearly wanted to bash the officials, as he told his local media that player safety should be the primary concern: “I’d be happy to comment on it if I were allowed to, but I’m not allowed to.” (Leach declined comment to Yahoo Sports.)

Not only did the play not get called, but the Pac-12 didn’t appear to formally review it. (There was no stoppage, and there was no write-up in the report obtained by Yahoo Sports that broke down four formal reviews during the game.) Scott issued conflicting statements on the call.

Initially he told the Associated Press, “This was a very, very close one, no doubt about it.” He got heavily criticized for that, as ESPN analyst Desmond Howard asked: “Do they drug test commissioners?”

Scott later went on the say his comments were misinterpreted, as he said the league doesn’t come out and declare whether calls were correct or not. He told reporters that people had determined “that the conference had officially reviewed, and I or the conference office had officially determined, that it was a correct no-call, and that was the final word, and that’s not the case.”

Multiple officials and coaches noted how the missed targeting calls undermine the focus on player safety, which is the ultimate goal of the stiff penalties for targeting calls. Flint Minshew, the father of the Washington State quarterback who got hit violently helmet-to-helmet said: “There’s so many mixed messages. I don’t think their No. 1 concern was player safety. Their No. 1 concern was having a good excuse for missing the call.”

Around college football, the “third party” report will reverberate longer than the missed call on Gustin. “Once you give someone outside the officiating world who may have a vested interest a voice, if they’re involved, the integrity of the game is at stake,” McAulay said.

The highlighted section of the referee’s USC-WSU game report shows the play in question. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
The highlighted section of the referee’s USC-WSU game report shows the play in question. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

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