Referees have a tough job, we all know this. They also are the ultimate scapegoat, disliked by all for their stubborn impartiality in an emotional game and apparent lack of proper vision or understanding of the rules…or so we often claim as fans out of frustration when things don’t go our way.
Usually they are the silent overseers properly calling a game in a neutral state, the Switzerland of athletics. Yet sometimes there are events where despite the typical ire drawn from fans blaming them for the team’s subpar performance, maybe it WAS the referees that caused the problem. Sometimes it’s difficult NOT to wonder if the refs are biased, have a bet riding on the game and are slanting it one way or another, or just plain incompetent.
Athletes and coaches will both say that games shouldn’t be left up to the referees, that if they had played better then the players would have decided it on the field. Yet in a close battle with two teams struggling for every inch, one referee call can unquestionably swing a game.
In recent weeks there was a basketball game between Oregon and Colorado where in the final seconds a questionable referee call gave the game to Colorado, a foul as time expired where the replay clearly showed Oregon’s E.J. Singler got a clean block. Instead the bad call led to the game-winning free throw for Colorado with one second left on the clock.
Of course I am not naïve enough to believe that all bad calls only go against Oregon, quite a few over the years have greatly benefited the Ducks. In the 1989 Independence Bowl for example, Bill Musgrave was called down on a fumble that set up the game-winning field goal.
Karma got its revenge the following season though, as the 1990 Freedom Bowl in Musgrave’s last game the Ducks would come literally an inch short of victory vs. Colorado State.
Other times there are games so badly officiated that the incompetent calls go against both teams so badly that it completely destroys any aspect of how the teams might have actually settled it on the field. The best example of this is the 2006 Oklahoma-Oregon game, where no less than seven atrocious calls had everyone in the stands wanting ref blood!
Five bad calls had favored Oklahoma, leading to a net of 14 undeserved points that had given the Sooners a 4th quarter lead, until a now-infamous bad call on an onside kick gave Oregon one more chance to come back. All seven calls had a profound effect in the game, yet because the broadcast went national just before the onside kick late in the game, that seems to be the only call people remember, helped out by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ cry-baby act to the media after the game was over, with Oregon preserving their lead thanks to a blocked field goal as time expired. If the referees were the ones that had blocked the kick and not Oregon LB Blair Phillips, perhaps Stoops and company would have had a valid argument.
So was the onside kick a bad call? Absolutely! But the ire of the Oklahoma fans was directed at the wrong person. So outraged were Sooner fans that death threats were sent to the review official, ignoring that it was actually the on-field referee who prematurely blew his whistle marking the ball down and possession Oregon while it was still a live ball. Once the whistle was blown the recovery was no longer reviewable, meaning the only part of the play that could be reviewed on video was who touched it first, which was inconclusive to overturn the initial call on the field. This negated the fact that Oklahoma DID recover the onside kick, but not until well after the whistle had already blown the play dead. Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen’s ill-advised decision to suspend the crew that called the game only threw gasoline on the raging fire of fan outrage over the poor calls in the game and validating the Nike-led conspiracy theories being spewed from Sooner country.
Bad call #1: Questionable penalty
Bad call #2: No-call on pass interference
Bad call #3: Multiple ref errors on one play
Bad call #4: Should have been offensive pass interference
Bad call #5: Bad spot sets up Oklahoma touchdown
Bad call #6: Onside kick
Bad call #7: Pass interference should have been defensive holding
Also sometimes shady politics or outside influences may have an impact before or during a game, case in point the 1931 ruling that Oregon star RB Joe Lillard was ineligible for playing minor league baseball, something common for students to do at the time to earn money in the summers. It was a blatant showing of racism and double-standards, and killed Oregon’s 1931 season.
But where does the bad call against Singler in the Colorado basketball game earlier this year rank among the all-time worst calls made against the Oregon Ducks? Let’s take a look at some of the worst referee calls against the Ducks through the years, the ones that perhaps prove that the refs are indeed blind.
January 1st, 1920. East-West Tournament Game (Rose Bowl), Oregon vs. Harvard.
Harvard was the heavily favored team in the sixth East-West Tournament Game, later known as the Rose Bowl. However the Webfoots had fought hard, keeping the game close with Harvard holding a slight 7-6 lead late in the game. A 25 yard dropkick by Oregon appeared to be good, giving them a 9-7 lead. Oregon thought it was good, Harvard thought it was good, slamming their helmets into the ground out of frustration. Even the scoreboard keeper thought it was good, giving Oregon the 9-7 lead, until the refs overruled it saying the kick was just wide. The Ducks lost 7-6, they would not play in another bowl game for 29 years.
October 27th, 1962. Washington fans storm the field to preserve the tie.
It’s no secret that Oregon and Washington fans don’t like each other much. The bad blood goes back decades. Many point to 1948 as the start of it all, when Washington picked Cal over Oregon to go to the Rose Bowl then also lobbied Montana to vote the same way, leaving the Ducks out.
But the most infamous moment in the bitter rivalry of shady Husky maneuvering took place in 1962. Oregon and Washington were tied 21-21 with mere seconds remaining in the game when a touchdown pass to Larry Hill gave Oregon the victory on the final play…or it would have, had Washington fans not stormed the field prematurely and tackled Hill in the endzone before he could make the catch. The referees let it stand, and the game remained a tie. Possibly they feared for their lives wanting to vacate the premises as fast as possible, but to ignore fans tackling a player about to make the game-winning touchdown catch was perplexing to be sure.
Oddly, this was not the first time that an Oregon player had been prematurely tackled vs. Washington. In 1928 Oregon’s Bobby Robinson intercepted a pass near the goal line and streaked down the sidelines for a would-be pick six touchdown eerily similar to the one made by Kenny Wheaton in the 1994 game, except that Washington’s Larry Westweller ran off the bench onto the field to tackle Robinson. Unlike in the 1962 game, the referees awarded Robinson with a touchdown for the interference, and Oregon cruised to an easy 27-0 victory.
November 4th, 1989. Referees hold back Oregon just enough vs. BYU.
It was a quarterback battle for the ages when the Bill Musgrave-led Oregon Ducks came to Provo, UT to take on eventual Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer (1990) and the BYU Cougars. Both would set passing records that day in a back-and-forth battle between the two teams vying for a shot at a bowl game. It wasn’t one single referee call that doomed the Ducks that day, but a series of highly dubious ref decisions that were just enough to tilt the game in BYU’s favor, 45-41.
There would be no home cooking for BYU the next year though, as Oregon destroyed the Cougars at Autzen Stadium 32-16, intercepting Detmer five times.
October 29th, 1994. All-American O’Berry robbed of an interception vs. Arizona.
The Ducks were just coming off of the most improbable finish to a football game, hosting highly-ranked Arizona at Autzen Stadium in one the hardest hitting defensive struggles in history. Field goals had been the only scoring on the day with Arizona driving to the goal line threatening to punch it in during a game where it was clear that whoever scored single touchdown would win. That’s when Oregon All-American cornerback Herman O’Berry made a remarkable interception in the endzone to halt Arizona in its tracks…or he would have, except the referees rued it an incomplete pass and Arizona kicked a field goal.
Thankfully, a late touchdown catch by Josh Wilcox gave Oregon the 10-9 victory in a game vital to Oregon’s run to the roses that year, but the interception-ruled-incomplete loomed large up until the final seconds.
It wasn’t the only questionable call in the game that kept Arizona in the lead for most of the day, as an apparent Arizona fumble recovered by Oregon was ruled down.
August 31st, 1996. Is it really intentional grounding when the receiver is tackled and the ball hits him anyway?
Oregon opened the season playing at Fresno State, and in a hotly contested battle on a brutally hot night Oregon almost lost it all because of a bizarre intentional grounding call on quarterback Tony Graziani. As Graziani rolled out pressure forced him to throw early to the intended receiver, fullback Eric Winn, who simultaneously was being tackled to the ground. Yet rather than calling pass interference, instead the referees decided to call intentional grounding, much to Graziani’s shock. The flag almost stopped Oregon in its tracks trying to march towards a late comeback victory, but the Ducks managed to tie the game late and in overtime won on a 25 yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Wilcox.
October 28th, 2000. The duel in the desert aided by a fumble that wasn’t.
In a game that will go down in the record books as having literally everything imaginable, why shouldn’t it also include a horrendous call? It would end in double overtime 56-55 with the Ducks winning after a vicious late 4th quarter comeback (the Ducks were down 42-24 at one point). Yet Arizona State got a huge boost early on in the game with a horrible referee call.
Oregon was backed up against the goal line when quarterback Joey Harrington dropped back to throw. Meanwhile ASU LB Adam Archuleta sprinted around the edge and struck Harrington from behind jarring the ball loose, which Eric Fields then recovered in the endzone for a touchdown. That’s how it was ruled on the field anyway, but replay clearly showed that Harrington was well into the throwing motion by the time he was hit, which should have made it an incomplete pass.
Karma would give a gift back to Oregon though. Late in the 4th quarter, after being stopped at the 1 yard line on 4th & goal moments earlier and needing only to run the clock out ASU fumbled giving the ball back to Oregon and Harrington found tight end Justin Peele for a game-tying touchdown with only a couple seconds left on the clock.
September 24th, 2005. Refs overturn 3 TDs in USC’s favor to keep their BCS run intact.
They were being called the greatest team of all-time, the 2005 USC Trojans. They were supposedly and unstoppable force, featuring two eventual Heisman Trophy winners (Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart) leading the way. The Trojans would run into a buzzsaw when they came to Eugene, with the Ducks taking what appeared to be a 17-0 lead in the first half and well on their way to a huge upset riding the momentum wave.
However, a phantom personal foul call on guard Palauni Ma’Sun took one of Oregon’s touchdowns off the board. It was the first of four referee curiosities on the day that either took Oregon touchdowns off the board or left USC touchdown’s good. After USC blocked a field goal, the beast had been awakened and momentum immediately turned against the Ducks, and USC rolled from there changing a 13-0 lead into a 45-13 domination of Oregon.
By the time Oregon scored a late TD that was negated for an incorrect personal foul call on Terrell Jackson was one more knife to Oregon’s back. A few minutes later a blatant block in the back that sprung USC runningback Reggie Bush for a reversed-field touchdown was left uncalled. It was the final straw, as the outrage towards the referees in what should have been the biggest upset in Autzen Stadium history had instead turned sour because of referee interference, ending in embarrassing fashion with a shower of water bottles on the field from angry fans aiming at the refs out of frustration.
November 15th, 2007. Two bad calls a rotten cherry on top for a horrible evening in the desert.
It is a night that all Duck fans would probably like to forget. Oregon looked to be dominating the Arizona Wildcats early, led by should-have-been Heisman Trophy winner Dennis Dixon, but in an instant Dennis Dixon’s collapsed knee also led to the collapse of Oregon’s likely championship run. Even after Dixon’s injury, the Ducks were still very much in the game if not for two plays the referees bungled so badly they all but literally handed the victory to the ‘Cats.
The first came on a punt return by Arizona star cornerback Antoine Cason, which featured three separate illegal blocks all left uncalled permitting Cason to take it to the house.
Later Oregon executed a brilliant fake punt with LB Kwame Agyeman taking the ball well into field goal range. It was Cason as the last line of defense on the return, flipping Agyeman head over heels. As Agyeman landed the ground caused a fumble, which he recovered though it should have been ruled down to begin with. As the pile of players was slowly removed by the referees, one ref yells at Agyeman that he sees that he has the ball and to let go as he’s going to rule possession Oregon. Once Agyeman let go, another referee stepped in and claimed that Arizona had recovered the fumble. Agyeman was livid, screaming at the ref who had told him to let go of the ball, but to no avail as Arizona retained possession of the “fumble.”
The punt return TD aided by multiple blocks in the back and the atrocious actions of the referees on the fake punt resulted in Oregon’s 34-24 loss, but the L hurt much more beyond just knocking Oregon out of their #2 ranking as star QB Dennis Dixon was lost for the season. Oregon would lose the next two games as well to limp into the bowl game, though redeemed the late-season slide with a 56-17 victory over South Florida in the Sun Bowl.
September 20th, 2008. BS-U headhunters cheapshot their way to victory.
It was one the most classless showings by a team in recent memory. Oregon already was down two quarterbacks, with projected starter Nate Costa out for the year with a torn ACL and Justin Roper out for weeks with a shredded knee of his own suffered the previous week vs. Purdue. That left JC transfer Jeremiah Masoli as the starter, third on the depth chart, with two true freshmen behind him, one redshirting and the other with an injured shoulder.
It didn’t take long for BS-U to take advantage, with a blatant cheapshot aimed at knocking Masoli out of the game. So obvious was it a flagrant attempt to injure Masoli that without question the BS-U player Ellis Powers should have been ejected from the game, but he was not.
Masoli to his credit stayed in the game for a little while, leading the Ducks to an easy touchdown drive, but the damage had been done as Masoli had a concussion that would knock him out for the rest of the day. In came true freshman QB Chris Harper, incapable of throwing due to a bad shoulder, and BS-U quickly realized that Oregon could only run the ball for the remainder of the game, stacking the line. The Masoli concussion completely changed the outcome of the game, turning Oregon’s previously unstoppable offense to one incapable of more than 3-and-outs until the 2nd half when the redshirt was grudgingly removed from freshman QB Darron Thomas, replacing the ineffective Harper.
BS-U’s cheap play continued, as the referees did a subpar job of keeping the game under control. Shoving matches and, late hits, and cheapshots was the status quo in a long day of antagonizing actions by the Broncos against the Ducks without a QB capable of providing any passing threat whatsoever. A late rally fell short, and an eventual ejection of Jerod Johnson for yet another cheapshot did not make up for the damage being done. It is the job of the referees to keep both teams under control, and they clearly on this day let it get out of control early on, resulting in a bitter loss that spilled into the following year’s rematch.
The actions of the 2008 Boise State Broncos carried over into bad blood and trash talking in the press leading into the 2009 game, which ended with a very public outburst when a BS-U player decided to get in one final taunt immediately after the game, leading to Oregon RB LeGarrette Blount punching him on live TV.
January 10th, 2011. In a game of inches, five calls steal Oregon’s national championship.
It was slated to be a battle of two unstoppable offenses for the national championship, Oregon vs. Auburn. Yet the defenses reigned supreme on a sloppy field, in a close battle that came down literally to the last play. The game remained close throughout, but five key calls all going in Auburn’s favor was just enough of a slant to give Auburn the edge, and with it the national title.
The first came early in the game, when Oregon defensive tackle Zac Clark hit Auburn QB Cam Newton forcing a fumble that was picked up by Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris with a clear path to the endzone for what should have been a defensive touchdown. Instead the referees immediately blew the play dead, calling it a sack leading to an Auburn punt.
The second bad call followed in the second quarter, when Oregon cornerback Cliff Harris intercepted a pass as he fell out of bounds. The play was reviewed, but still incorrectly called incomplete. Auburn was given a second chance, and on the very next play connected for a 35 yard touchdown pass to Kodi Burns.
Next, Oregon was backed up to their own endzone when they connected for a first down play. However, a highly questionable illegal formation flag erased the first down and pushed Oregon even closer to the endzone. The next play Oregon’s offensive line couldn’t hold back Auburn’s defensive line, tackling LaMichael James in the endzone for a safety. The safety then led to another Auburn touchdown before halftime.
In the 4th quarter with Auburn backed up deep in their own territory on 3rd & 12, the referees missed an obvious delay of game penalty that should have negated the play, backing up Auburn to a 3rd & 17. Instead not throwing a flag resulted in a first down run by Auburn QB Cam Newton, extending the drive.
Yet despite the favorable calls in Auburn’s favor, the Ducks had managed to tie the game at 19 with little time left. Auburn was driving but the Ducks defense had held firm, tackling Michael Dyer to the ground for a minimal gain near midfield. Dyer’s wrist touched down, which by rule would designate Dyer as being down despite no knee touching as he rolled over the defender, an eerily similar play taking place a week prior in the Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Arkansas resulting in the correct call. As Dyer rolled over Oregon’s Zac Clark putting his wrist down for leverage the refs swallowed their whistles letting play continue, unlike with the Cam Newton fumble-ruled-down earlier in the game, and after a moment of confusion Dyer sprinted down field for an extra 25 yards. The play was reviewed but still the incorrect call was made letting the extra yardage stand, and Auburn kicked a field goal as time expired to steal the national championship.
So there you have it, some of the worst, most blatantly bad calls against Oregon in history. Did I miss one? Do you have a particularly bad call that comes to mind? Share your worst call memories in the comments…
And now that you’ve got the blood pumping, before you go grab torches and pitchforks to hunt down the closest referee, take a minute to find out why referees make the calls that they do, with my interview with a Pac-10/WAC official:
What The Refs Are Looking At: An Official’s Perspective