Referee Analysis: The Stanford Debacle

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Larry Scott knew he had a problem.

If he didn’t know it when he took the job in 2009, he certainly knew it when he brought in former NFL VP of Officiating Mike Pereira in 2011 to fix it.  His referees sucked, to put it bluntly, and it was the one of the key obstacles in harnessing the growth potential of college football’s most promising conference.

When a crew of Pac-12 officials was given the chance to officiate the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, it had to give Scott the feeling of both delight (because of the shift in perception leading to the opportunity) and terror (because he knew they had the potential to screw up that opportunity.)  His hope: that his officials could get through four quarters without vomiting on themselves and avoid making a call that could shift a national title.

Unfortunately, the Pac-12 officials couldn’t go four minutes without causing a major controversy, making highly questionable calls on a Notre Dame third down, and then on a mishandled punt by Alabama on the game’s next play.  The calls took away two possessions for Notre Dame, Alabama jumped out to a 14-0 lead, all while social media lit up with incredulity across the nation amidst a wave of “told-you-so”s from Pac-12 fans.

Alabama would go on to throttle Notre Dame, leading 28-0 at halftime before winning 42-14.  The blowout would largely absolve the Pac-12 officials’ earlier gaffes from the public narrative, the implication being, “Alabama may have gotten help, but they didn’t need it.”  Potential crisis was averted; as the conference wouldn’t have to explain why its officials were responsible for deciding a title instead of the players and coaches.

There’s only one problem with that story: it’s only half true.  The Pac-12 officials didn’t give Alabama the title that night in Miami; they gave it to them 51 days earlier in Eugene.

In the last three seasons, Oregon has won 90% of their games – 36 wins to only four losses.  More impressively, of those 36 wins, only three were by fewer than 15 points (’10 Cal, ’12 Wisconsin, ’12 USC).  During that span, Oregon had another seven wins where they were tied or trailing at the half, yet only one of those games (’12 Wisconsin) failed to produce a 15+ point victory.

With Chip Kelly gone and his narrative at Oregon completed, that will be how the Ducks under him will be remembered – losses, though few and far between, were still more likely than close wins, even if the team trailed in the second half.  Simply put, games were either a blowout, or a loss.

The fulcrum of their success is the third quarter.  Oregon’s gameplan involves doing the same thing over and over until that plan finds traction.  Once it does, Oregon is scoring over 40, guaranteed.  If it doesn’t happen, they’re scoring in the teens, and hoping the defense can hold on, like it did against Cal in 2010.

The intent of this analysis is to show the impact the officials had on the outcome of the 2012 Oregon-Stanford game: how their haphazard attempts to gain control of the game, a game which they lost grasp of early on, through ill-timed calls or no calls, had as much of an impact on the game as any other factor in preventing Oregon’s offense from its ability to gain traction.  As Oregon attempted to hold on to a lead in the game’s waning moments, the officials directly impacted the end result by unnecessarily injecting themselves into the game’s outcome.

Unlike the National Championship, this time the Pac-12 officials we actually able to get through the first quarter without controversy, so let’s pick up the action early in the second, with 12:39 remaining.

Chip Kelly is upset, as we see the first sign of the officials losing control of the game.  Following Stanford’s touchdown to put the Cardinal up 7-0, Kelly argued that Stanford should have been whistled for illegal man downfield.

The rule for illegal man downfield dictates that the only eligible receivers (those allowed past the line of scrimmage) are those lined up behind the line of scrimmage (above), and the ends on either side of the line.  All other players, including Stanford lineman Cameron Fleming (#73), are ineligible past the LOS, save for a one-yard cushion (the single yard provision is in place to minimize penalties), until the ball passes the line of scrimmage.

Was Chip right? While it’s uncertain if #73 is over a yard downfield, it’s very close (above), and Chip definitely has a case.  Does the umpire hear him out?  If by “hearing him out”, you mean, “gave him a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty”, then yes.

While giving a coach an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing a call is about as common as a one-point safety, the call itself set the trend for penalties that night.  Every penalty called against the Ducks against Stanford resulted in one of three outcomes:

  • Hindered field position at the start of a drive
  • Negated an Oregon first down conversion
  • Negated a successful Oregon third down defense

The unsportsmanlike call against Kelly following the touchdown allowed Stanford to kickoff from the 50, neutralizing Oregon’s dangerous kick returners on one of only three kick return opportunities (two TDs and the start of the second half) the Ducks would have the entire game.  It was an unnecessary call, one driven by most by official’s desire to demonstrate his authority rather than operating from a position of control.  As the game progressed, each call, or no call, carried increasingly detrimental weight towards Oregon’s chances.

As addressed earlier, establishing momentum in the third quarter is critical to Oregon’s success.  Yet the greatest impact in momentum was made by the referees, whose officiating became more destructive with each successive possession.

The four possessions the Ducks had in the third quarter, with penalties and their drive outcomes:

  • 15:00: No penalties called, drive ends in punt.
  • 9:55: Personal foul/leg whip called on Bralon Addison.  Wiped out Oregon first down.  Drive ends in touchdown.
  • 6:20: Holding called on Ryan Clanton.  Wiped out Oregon first down.  Pushes Oregon back to 1st and 20, forced to kick 42-yard field goal on fourth down.  Kick is missed.
  • 3:27: No penalties called despite obvious Stanford infractions on second and third down, drive ends in punt.

We’ll address the last three.

The drive beginning at 9:55, 3rd, though having an absurd leg whip call, followed by one of the most farcical sequences in college football last season, with the head linesman losing track of the down, then swaying the other officials, before being re-corrected (above); ultimately didn’t cost Oregon anything, as the Ducks ended the drive in a touchdown.

The detriment begins with the drive starting at 6:20.  After shifting the momentum following the recovery of a Stanford fumble, Oregon picks up a first down two plays later.  They picked up another first down, this time in the red zone, a 12-yard catch by Daryle Hawkins, which was immediately wiped out following a holding call.  The call pushed Oregon back ten yards, leading to a 42-yard field goal.  Given that it was largely understood publicly that forty yards was the edge of Oregon’s kickers’ range, it reasons that the call took points off the board.

Yet the damaging nature of that call pales in comparison to the hypocrisy we see from the officials on Oregon’s next drive, beginning at 3:27.

We can complain about the timing of the holding call, or its impact on the play, but by the nature of the officials’ role as rule-enforcers, that’s their prerogative.  However, if the officials choose to enforce a game that closely, they must adhere to that strategy throughout the game.  If they call close penalties on Oregon, it would reason they should do so on Stanford as well.

Which makes what occurred on second and third down of Oregon’s final drive of the third quarter an absolute travesty.

Oregon’s drive begins following a Stanford punt.  On the punt coverage, the officials flagged Josh Huff for a personal foul (above), likely for hitting a Stanford player too far into the bench.

Now backed up an additional 15 yards, Oregon began its drive.  Two plays later on 2nd and 10, Kenjon Barner ran to the right side, pushed out of bounds by Stanford CB Terrence Brown (#6).  Brown continues to hold onto Barner, eventually tackling him three yards deep on the sideline in front of the line judge, with no call !

Brown wasn’t done with his run of impunity.  Now 3rd-and-7 from the Oregon 12, not 1st-and-10 from the Oregon 27, Brown hits Will Murphy prematurely (above), which any average football fan could tell was pass interference; or as 59,000 average fans determined, as a cascade of boos echoed throughout Autzen Stadium during the entire change of possession.

Oregon punted, and wouldn’t have a complete drive the remainder of the third quarter.  The standard window for Oregon to gain traction had closed.

Like the game in Berkeley in 2010, eventually the tone of the game changed from “waiting for the offense to get going” to “hoping the defense could hold the lead”.  Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

I’ll avoid devoting any more analysis to a single play that has already been dissected as though it were the Zapruder film, instead offering context as to how absurd this ruling was.

Here is what the NCAA rule book says about overturning a call:

SECTION 7, ARTICLE 1: Reversing an On-Field Ruling

To reverse an on-field ruling, the replay official must be convinced beyond all doubt by indisputable video evidence through one or more video replays provided to the monitor.

In that description, we see the egregiousness of the replay official’s ruling.  His responsibility was not to determine whether the receiver made the catch; that difficult decision lay with the officials on the field.  Instead, the replay official’s job is merely to observe the play; if there is any uncertainty whatsoever, the call on the field must be upheld.  That’s it.  He doesn’t have to do anything that challenges the scope of his abilities; he just has to not screw up.  (How badly did he screw up?  The man brought in to train him how to do his job wrote an article the following day describing how badly he screwed up.)

By injecting himself into the game, the replay official swayed the course of the 2012 college football season.  Coupled with the decisions of the Notre Dame-Stanford officials five weeks earlier, and Pac-12 refs cost the conference two potential title game participants, and likely a National Championship.  That success would have brought the conference and its teams millions, but that financial windfall has no value for the conference’s officials.  They’ll be back in Pac-12 stadiums this fall, continuing to get paid no matter how badly they ruin things for their employer.  When someone does their job that poorly and stays employed, they’re stealing a paycheck.  It should come as no surprise their specialty is larceny, because they’ve already stolen a title from the Oregon Ducks.

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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to

  • Chip

    got to love college football, cant wait to see all the crazy stuff next year!

  • fishduck

    Call me stunned at all the incompetence. They gave Ernst the catch because he secured it for half a second with his shoulder touching…and then bobbled the ball with his shoulder out of bounds.

    Cliff Harris catches an interception in the NC game and has it securely in hand with feet in-bounds. Then when he hits the ground and rolls out of bounds and the ball pops out then? Not a catch. Auburn scores the next play.

    It does not matter what the officials decide on possession of a catch–we get hosed for a National Championship. Yep, this is sour grapes, but it is accurate.

    • MDcard

      Look man, it’s college football and it is never, ever, ever going to be perfectly called. At the end of the day it’s about overcoming the adversity and creating enough separation between yourself and the opponent, so when the questionable calls don’t go your way, you still can win. A close game can always be analyzed in retrospect and calls dissected ad nauseum. The Ducks have consistently had a great football team the last few years and have built a formidable program. The rivalry between us has been great for the PAC 12 and great for our schools. If they had not called that Ernst catch a catch, we would have been bitching that he had the ball and was in bounds and never dropped the ball…blah, blah, blah. Close play and we got the call there. Eventually, the game went into overtime…so we were on square footing there. And you guys did not do anything on offense in overtime. That’s where the game was lost. You had a chance there to grab victory and you didn’t. It happens…you still have a great program and your team is respected, even feared. Looking forward to a good match up again this year.

    • cardfan

      I just happened to watched the replay of this game last night on my DVR. On Ertz’s catch, the back judge rules the pass incomplete because Ertz was out of bounds. Neither refs indicate a “bobble” on camera. The replay officials have conclusive evidence that Ertz controlled the ball in bounds. In fact, the ref says exactly that after the official review. Duck fans are complaining that the replay refs don’t have conclusive evidence it’s not a bobble. Irrelevant because they weren’t required to make a ruling regarding a “bobble.” My understanding is the booth can only examine the call that was made…which was out of bounds, conclusively incorrect. The booth cannot make new calls from booth, only review the ones that were made. The booth did exactly what it was allowed to do and it overturned the on field call of “out of bounds” with conclusive evidence.

      Based on the game replay, the whole “bobble” thing was never indicated by any ref on the field and has been inserted by fans and media who were unhappy with the outcome.

  • Dino

    I can’t tell from that picture if the ball was bobbled. Maybe he did bobble it but that picture shows two hands touching the ball.

    • Nate

      That’s EXACTLY the point, you can’t tell. No one can. The officials on the field call it incomplete, which means if there’s any doubt, the replay official has to uphold the call. He didn’t.

      • Cardfan

        Disagree. Ertz never takes both hands off the ball. Never. The replay shows that conclusively. It also shows he touched in bounds before touching out. Movement of the ball doesn’t constitute a bobble. Why not show a page from a rule book which defines a “bobble” and show how that matches what happened?

    • fishduck

      Actually I was looking at that last night on the TiVo and at the moment this screenshot was taken (Because I took it) the ball was popping out of a secure hold. Hard to see with a pic, but video replay shows it. It’s a completion for Stanford, but not for Oregon in the NC game. (see below)

      Regardless of how completions are measured…Oregon got hosed on both extremes.

      • Dino

        I’m not sure how a bobble is defined. In the GIF above, the ball is clearly moving but at no time does the ball leave Ertz’s hands. I don’t see any space between his hands and the ball. When I think of a bobble, the ball is released for a moment and then re-secured. That’s not what happens in the GIF. This is so close. I would like to see a video as Ertz lands,

    • greenenvy070

      Here’s a GIF that shows the bobble while Ertz’s shoulder was out of bounds:

      • Cardfan

        I’m afraid not. Ertz lands and is in complete control of the ball as it’s tucked against his stomach.. He then goes to SHOW the ref that he caught the ball and whoever the defender is, continues to try and knock it out of Ertz’s hand. Ertz never takes both hands off the ball and the fact that the ball moves side to side is irrelevant. The only question was whether he was in bounds when he came down and the replay CLEARLY shows his should touches inbounds first. It’s a catch. Stanford beat Oregon.

        • greenenvy070

          Ha! It was called incomplete on the field, and the video above clearly shows that Ertz never controlled the ball for more than a split second WHILE he was out of bounds. Tell yourself whatever you want about this play, but it was complete BS. It should have been 2nd and 10, and Stanford may very well have scored anyway… but this play is crystal clear and many have called out the stupid reversal from the replay booth.

          • Cardfan

            In real time, the call makes sense. In real time, it looks like Ertz comes down out of bounds. Ertz never LOST control of the ball. He never takes both hands off of it. The defender whacking at Ertz’s arms as he tries to show it to the refs isn’t a loss of control. It’s Ducks fans looking for a scapegoat.

            Kelly was out-coached and the Ducks were outplayed. The reverse happened to Stanford the year before. Have the integrity to admit it.

            Fishduck’s breakdown of the game was excellent stuff. And while I agree with Nate that being the loser shouldn’t invalidate a critical review of the officiating, pointing to a bunch of calls that wouldn’t make the top 10000 of all time bad calls is…disappointing.

            That Stanford lineman is CLEARLY not past the 1 yard rule if you’re using the black line. The fact that Kelly complained about shows Kelly was rattled. You think the refs didn’t miss a bunch of Oregon penalties and fouls? Did Shaw get let himself get flagged for complaining? The Duck receiver is clearly trying to push the Stanford defender off to create space. No call.

            There’s no shame in getting beat. The shame comes in trying to make excuses and twist the facts to support a position that discourages accountability.

            That being said, you guys got robbed on that 4th down play where Yankey clearly false started. THAT might have been the game.

          • greenenvy070

            The Ducks beat the Cardinal by 23 points in 2011, and were never UP less than 13 points in the 4th quarter of that game.

            The Cardinal was DOWN by 7 when this “touchdown” happened with 1:35 left in the 4th quarter.

            As for Ertz “never losing control” of this pass, how about this? Is this him controlling the ball:

            As for Oregon’s “defender whacking at Ertz’s arms”… look at where the yellow gloves of the defender are here:

            Hmmm… no where near Ertz’s arms, huh?

            And if Ertz never bobbles the ball. How do his hands go from both on top of the ball, and pinning it against his body here:

            To both hands on the side of the ball here:

            Bottom line? The Cardinal needed a overturned call by a replay official to even TIE the Ducks in the waning moments of the game, and you’re saying that Chip was “out coached”?

            Again, I’m the only one posting ANY facts to back up my points. You seem to enjoy just making up whatever “Cardinal-colored” memories you have of the play in question.

  • DuckAlum78

    Thank you for analyzing and exposing this sub-par performance of the Referees that night. As a former Referee myself (different sport) I knew these guys were in
    over their heads.

  • Oregon’s alway’s getting HOSED by incompetent Pac 12 officials, It’s an annual happening, and I don’t understand how their not evaluated from it, cause If you have a bad performance then you might not be in the next Game. Oregon get’s hosed very time they get close to securing a Natty Game by BAD Officiating or Injury. DD ring a Bell anyone. Yes the out of bound’s Hit’s have happened a lot. Which is supposed to be a penalty. There’s two Guy’s on Duck Territory that I just can’t stand to read anything from either one. One is a Know it all about nothing, the other sometime’s make’s really good comment’s and then turn’s around and make’s some really RETARDED statement’s. I personally think your SPOT on pretty much all the time Fish and enjoy it most cause you prove it with Video. Thank’s FISH, your a True DUCK. This is the year Brother that we win it, as long as we don’t get help from the CRAP called Officiating in the PAC.

  • a fan

    “Absolute travesty”? “Absurd,” “egregious,” “hypocrisy,” “run of impunity”?
    “Stealing a paycheck” and “larceny”?

  • CowboyIndian

    I know this is an Oregon site and maybe it feels good for you to read a column such as this, but the refs screw it both ways, fellas. Stanford (of which I’m a fan) has several pretty good arguments about no-calls and blown ones from this game and the 2010 trip to Autzen,,,not to mention our most recent visit to South Bendover. You have a running back who doesn’t know from blocking. You haven’t got a kicker. Your coach was arrogant on 4th down. You lost. Next.

    • fishduck

      Cowboy….we are the only site to have put up TWO analysis within a week after the game going through the Xs and Os and giving Stanford all the credit in the world for their game plan and execution. However when other factors weight in this big…it is warranted to mention. I don’t mind losing as Stanford is/was a great team…but let’s not let it happen by injury or Refs.

      • CowboyIndian

        Agreed. You seem so reasonable. Are you sure you’re an Oregon fan?

    • Nate

      I agree. I wanted to write a whole lot more on this, I was going to show how after the Ertz touchdown, the unfair calls started getting heaped on Stanford, almost indicative of a guilty response. Unfortunately, to fully dissect all manners of unfairness, we’d have to write about 5,000 words, and not a lot of people want to read that much, so we stuck to the big stuff about Oregon, since this as you said, an Oregon site.

      • CowboyIndian

        Fair enough.

  • QQ…uack

    Sweet, sweet, Schadenfreude.

  • ruffian

    been a duck all my life. one thing in sports is sure: only the losers talk about the refs. love fishduck analysis, but this one falls into the sour grapes catagory.

    Remember, we got the call we needed at the end of the Rose Bowl….quack quack quack….

    • Nate

      “only the losers talk about the refs”

      Talk and blame are two different things. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying “the officials are the sole reason Oregon lost”, this is just an analysis of a specific aspect of the game that has been a recurring problem beyond the control of the athletic department that contributed to a loss.

      Failing to talk about officiating as a problem allows scandals like Tim Donaghy to occur, where fans saw something was clearly amiss, only to have it revealed that he was feeding information to mob associates involved in a gambling scheme. Had it not been discussed it could have ruined their sport. Good thing there were a bunch of losers at the NBA who decided to talk about it, with their loser ref talk, so they could save their league.

  • Cardinal1

    Go Card!

  • AdmittedCardinal

    The Huff penalty was for initiating a block out of bounds. That’s a specific penalty, created in 2011 to stop the practice of punt return teams hitting gunners who have run out-of-bounds. No question Huff was guilty.

    The Terrence Brown tackle is governed by a totally different rule for unnecessary roughness/late hit. But as with Huff, if either the blocker in Huff’s case or the tackler in Brown’s case initiates the contact in-bounds, there’s no penalty.

  • What is amazing is that some of these Pac refs still have jobs. I CRINGE when I see Stritcherz out there. At the very least he should not be allowed within the city limits of a game between teams with winning records. Over the years he has certainly given us our fair share of calls, but I’d rather just play straight up then swap terrible calls. It is almost like he waits for big plays to insert himself into the game.

  • yossarian

    Face it — you choked like dogs.

  • ncaa

    Dude, unfortunately you don’t know the rule and that ruins any credibility you have to complain. Ineligible receivers can go THREE YARDS, not one, past the line when a forward pass is thrown beyond the LOS. That rule was changed back in like 2009.