For all of the headlines about an undefeated Notre Dame team headed to the BCS title game, my mind lingers on a game in October they didn't win. Down 20-13 in overtime, Stanford faced a 4th-and-goal to send the game into a second overtime. Running back Stepfan Taylor took the handoff, met the Notre Dame defensive line at the one-yard line, and fought through it into the end zone (video below). The game would head into another overtime.
Except...the referee called Taylor down. Why? Because he got pushed backward at one point, the referee declared his forward progress had stopped. Though Taylor's legs were still turning and he was still fighting for more yards, and despite Notre Dame continuing to play hard in the trenches, one referee decided to end the play before it was over.
None of this is on the Notre Dame team. They didn't ask the referee to end the game prematurely. And even if they wanted to, there's nothing the Irish could do to change it.
Yet on the most important play in college football this season, a referee's judgment call determined who will play in the national title game and who will not.
Let's be super clear about what happened here. The player was not ruled down. His knee hadn't touched, he hadn't fumbled. There wasn't a holding call on the offense. Everything about the play was totally legal. It was this official's judgment call to end the game. He decided in his head, "Okay, I'm simply going to end the game now, even though the play is still going on." And the game in fact ended.
It reminded me of the 2007 Super Bowl. Undefeated Patriots against the New York Giants. Late in the fourth quarter, the Patriots' defensive line had Eli Manning surrounded and in their grasp. But they didn't make the play. They didn't finish it. Manning escaped and threw the famous pass to David Tyree. Some complained that the refs should have blown the play dead because Manning was "in the grasp." No. Refs shouldn't make judgment calls to end games. Not there. Not here. You gotta finish the play.
While Notre Dame fans will argue until they're blue in the face that it was the right call, it wasn't. Mike Pereira, the former head of NFL officiating, Tweeted about the call:
We have looked at ND/STA last play from every angle & feel that it is a TD. Progress was not ruled & runner was not down. Ball broke plain.
The fact that the whistle may or may not have been blown is irrelevant. The play is reviewed and when the whistle blew has no bearing.
We don't know how the second overtime would have gone between Stanford and Notre Dame. Unfortunately, a referee decided we wouldn't get to find out. Maybe Notre Dame would have won anyway. But maybe they wouldn't have. And if Stanford had won that game, they would be playing for a spot in the national title game this weekend. Yes, a Stanford win at Notre Dame would have given them wins over two top-5 teams and five top-25 teams.
By the way, some argue Stanford actually scored on second down of the same drive, but that the refs blew that call. I'm not so sure. But on this one, there's no doubt.
With this post, I'm sure I'm guaranteeing a Stanford loss in the Pac-12 Championship game. But for now, the biggest play of this college football season was made by a guy in a striped shirt. Lock o' the Irish, indeed.