Tennessee controversially defeated Vanderbilt in overtime Saturday night, thanks, in part, to a misapplication of college football's instant replay rule—even if the end result was practically correct.
When Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers attempted to connect with a Commodores receiver on third down in overtime, Volunteers' defensive back Eric Gordon stepped into the passing lane and came away with the football, returning it 90 yards for a game winning Tennessee touchdown.
Or did he?
As the Vols celebrated wildly on the field, Commodores head coach James Franklin pointed towards the ground while the on-field officials huddled up to discuss the play.
When the crew emerged from their conference, SEC referee Marc Curles explained the play to the Knoxville crowd: "The ruling on the field [is] the ball was fumbled, recovered by Tennessee [DB Gordon] with his knee on the ground. Therefore the runner is down, Vanderbilt's series is over and Tennessee gets the ball, first and 10 on the 25 [yard line]."
Ok, that is understandable even if it is distressing. An inadvertent whistle resulted in a dead ball, killing the play and ending Vandy's series of downs. Once the Vols kick their gimme of a field goal, the game will be over.
But that's not where it ended. Instead, the situation was drawn out and things got awfully screwy.
As any official knows, games can be at their easiest when the ball is live. Contests can fall to pieces when the ball is dead, which is exactly what happened here.
After a buzz from the replay booth, Curles once again addressed the Tennessee hometown crowd: "The previous play is under further review. Although the runner's knee was ruled down, there was no whistle or signal."
Head linesman Gus Morris appeared to have blown his whistle while signaling Gordon down at the Vols' 11-yard line.
Relying on Curles' explanation, replay official Ben Oldham completed his review, logically ruling Gordon should not have been declared down en route to his game winning TD.
What Curles failed to tell Oldham was that Morris blew and marked the ball dead—Curles had said the exact opposite, that "there was no whistle or signal."
Per NCAA football rule 12-3-3, had there been no whistle or signal—as Curles had announced—the play would have been reviewable.
However, because there was both a whistle and signal, the play was not reviewable.
Unfortunately, per Fox Sport's in-house football officiating analyst Mike Pereira, there is no audio in the replay booth. In other words, Oldham was relying entirely on Curles' explanation to recreate the auditory events that occurred during the play.
It was therefore incumbent of Curles to inform the replay booth that a whistle had indeed blown and the ball had been signaled dead. Alas, he did not and Oldham had no way of finding out until the game was over.
This grave error ended up prematurely ending the game.
The incorrect call was so high profile that SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw—you might remember that name from Shaw's own officiating career which included two BCS national championship games and four SEC championship games—saw it fit to issue the following statement:
On the last play of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee game, in overtime, the Tennessee defender intercepted the pass, his knee did not touch the ground and he returned the interception for a touchdown. During the play, the head linesman incorrectly ruled that the Tennessee player's knee was down when he intercepted the pass by blowing his whistle and giving the dead ball signal. The play was reviewed as if there was no whistle on the field, and as a result, overturned the incorrect ruling. By rule, if there was a whistle blown, the play is not reviewable.
On the one hand, it is important to note the correct call—an inadvertent whistle causing the ball to become dead after the interception at the 11-yard line—would have still resulted in a turnover and likely would have prolonged Vanderbilt's defeat as Tennessee would have just been required to kick a chip shot of a field goal to win the game.
On the other hand, this was an egregious misinterpretation of the rules—gross miss or ICC, we call them—that directly and immediately determined the outcome of the game.
In determining who to blame for an inadvertent whistle or missed call, that can usually be traced to the one official who inappropriately blew a whistle or threw a flag.
What is the primary reason why Tennessee beat Vanderbilt?
Had this play been reviewed correctly and called a dead ball at the spot of the inadvertent whistle, Vols fans would likely have been terribly upset with head linesman Morris, but only for a few mere minutes until Tennessee would have presumably kicked its game winning FG.
Inadvertent whistles and other simple mistakes are part of the game—officials rarely commit such mistakes, but they do happen and occasionally happen during very high profile plays.
In determining who to blame for an incorrect interpretation of the rules call, officials will tell you it's the entire crew's fault.
Misinterpretation of the rules calls are supposed to never occur. Officials are rules experts and have spent countless hours mastering their sport's rules.
Add that to the fact that a misinterpretation requires all on-field officials to incorrectly apply a rule and you can see why this type of a miss is an exceptionally rare event that might occur only once every three or more seasons.
Instead of Morris being in the hot seat for a few inconsequential minutes, Curles and the entire officiating crew have drawn the utmost ire from Vanderbilt fans for at least a week, because they disregarded what happened on the field of play.
We can't solely blame Oldham—he likely had no idea the whistle had blown.
We can't solely blame Curles—he was running down the field in anticipation of officiating Gordon's return for a touchdown. He might have never even heard the whistle.
We can't even solely blame Morris—we have no idea what he told his crew chief.
Commodores angry about how this game ended will perpetually use the "what if Tennessee's field goal would have been wide?" argument. For these fans, the officials acted as one to demolish Vanderbilt's overtime campaign.
It won't come down to Rodgers' inability to avoid the interception nor Gordon's ability pick off the star QB. It won't even come down to the logical conclusion of "even without the whistle, he would have scored that touchdown."
It will be about an appalling officiating error, a blatant disregard of the rules and—for the most ambitious Vanderbilt fans—yet another manifestation of the SEC's efforts to conspire against their team.
For Tennessee, this was a hard-fought battle that resulted in a well earned victory.
Unfortunately, the most devastating of officiating errors might have just marred this late-season overtime thriller.
It's always easier to blame someone else.