Was that really pass interference?
It's a question likely being debated around water coolers everywhere today. The controversial ending to the epic Notre Dame-Florida State game nearly blew up the Internet on Saturday night, with amateur referees everywhere taking to Twitter and Facebook with their interpretation of college football's rulebook and the offensive pass-interference call made by the ACC officiating crew.
In the chaos of the game's final seconds, just about everyone—including ESPN's Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit—thought the penalty was called on wide receiver C.J. Prosise. But with the roar of Doak Campbell Stadium drowning out referee David Epperley's announcement, it wasn't until after the game that most realized that Will Fuller was the guilty party, with back judge Pat Ryan throwing the decisive flag on the Irish's star receiver.
After the game on Saturday, coach Brian Kelly said he didn't think the play was illegal. On Sunday, he doubled down on that assertion, especially after he found out the flag was thrown on Fuller.
"I have less clarity. I guess it was actually called on Will Fuller, not C.J.," Kelly said in his Sunday teleconference. "Just adds more uncertainty as to the final play. Again, the play itself in terms of what we ask our kids to do, it was pretty clear what happened on the play. Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it. So it's unfortunate."
The ACC took to the Internet to defend their call. The coordinator of ACC officials, Doug Rhoads, said the following when discussing the controversial call:
In order to bring a little clarity to the offensive pass-interference call that occurred in last night’s Notre Dame-Florida State game, let me see if I can explain the rule. Offensive players on passing plays are restricted from going downfield and blocking anytime from the snap. If the ball is first touched beyond the line of scrimmage, that would be legal and it’s okay, but if the ball is touched beyond the line, then it’s offensive pass interference.
Officials always have to exercise great judgment in calling a foul. An offensive pass interference—or pick plays as they’re sometimes referred to—are different than other difficult judgments. The key is the official must assess on the play whether there is sufficient restriction for it to be a foul, and he has to differentiate between incidental contact and significant contact or restriction when he calls that foul.
Rhoads is in a difficult situation, defending a judgment call that's essentially impossible to overturn. But by not focusing on the actual foul that was being called but rather the process by which the decision is made, Rhoads' "clarification" might actually do less to support his crew's decision than saying nothing at all.
When asked about the controversial flag, the NCAA's coordinator of officials, Rogers Redding, told The Associated Press, "What you want to look for, is it truly a situation where the offensive player prohibits the defender from making a play?''
"It's got to be obvious, and the rule even says, 'an obvious intent to impede.'''
Rule 7-3-8 is what Redding cites. It's also what has Irish fans still grumbling about Ryan's interpretation of pass interference. The rule book reads:
If opponents who are beyond the line collide while moving toward the pass, a foul by one or both players is indicated only if intent to impede the opponent is obvious. It is pass interference only if a catchable forward pass is involved.
While the initial instinct of both the broadcast booth and rules experts like Fox's Mike Pereria called the penalty a good one, different angles (not to mention clarification on the penalized party) make this less cut-and-dried.
With most media from the press box allowed on the field in the game's final minutes, new camera angles of the deciding play are popping up everywhere. One view from the South Bend Tribune's Tyler James seems to support Brian Kelly's point of view, with slo-mo and touch screen graphics to help prove it.
The guys at OneFootDown.com dug in and came to the same conclusion, noticing that the Irish moved to a bunch formation because the Seminoles were in man coverage, the absolute wrong defense for Kelly's play call:
From an X's and O's perspective, Notre Dame wins this play. No doubt about it. They have the right play call for the type of defense FSU is using. Unfortunately, it's not always just about X's and O's.
The ball has just left Everett Golson's hand. Will Fuller and CJ Prosise are both engaged with their respective defenders. This is a problem for Notre Dame. When the ball is in the air, the Notre Dame receivers can't be engaged with the DB's (regardless of who initiated the contact) or at the very least must be working to get away from contact. At the crucial moment they don't appear to be disengaging. That's why the call was made.
I don't know if it was the right call or not from a rule book perspective. From an X's and O's perspective, what Fuller and Prosise did isn't critical. They weren't the focal point of this play. They were at best a third and fourth option. Their patterns were primarily designed to isolate Robinson's route. Even if Fuller and Prosise don't touch the defenders, FSU is in trouble on this play. Notre Dame has them flanked because of alignment, not because of contact. Oddly enough, this is being called a pick play, but the player responsible for covering Robinson was never touched by anyone.
Of course, why contact is taking place is a critical component to the penalty call. While the angle from ESPN's broadcast seems to support the offensive pass-interference call, the look from behind the play shows two Florida State defensive backs doing their best to disrupt both Prosise and Fuller's pass routes with press-man coverage, playing perfectly into Notre Dame's hands, though also leading to the Irish's demise.
If the debate wasn't enough, no dissection of this play is complete without one other key addition: If the officials were intent on calling the play by the letter of the law, they missed a key penalty that would've given Notre Dame an automatic first down.
Florida State defensive back P.J. Williams removed his helmet after watching Corey Robinson score what he thought was the game-winning touchdown. That's a dead-ball, unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
Kelly said that the ACC acknowledged the missed call, the result of which would've been a 1st-and-goal from Notre Dame's 9-yard line with 13 seconds remaining.
In a parallel universe, the Irish and Seminoles returning to the field to square off again for 13 seconds would be a college football event unlike any we've ever seen. It's also a pipe dream, one that will only drive Irish fans crazy as they continue to dig into a 50-50 penalty that could've gone either way.
But after a week of endless hype for a game that somehow managed to live up to it, the controversial finish almost adds to the legend of this heavyweight bout.
Penalty or not? It'll be debated for years to come.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.