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Thought: The bad pass interference calls
Posted Nov 4, 2012

Zemek Thought: The bad pass interference calls need to be stopped

By Matt Zemek
E-mail Matt Zemek

This is not a new problem, but it's a problem that came into full focus on the very first night of this 2012 college football season: pass interference penalties are not reviewable. Before the 2013 season begins, college football has to subject the sport's most consequential penalty to a replay review.

On Thursday, Aug. 30, the Vanderbilt Commodores were flatly robbed in their season opener (the first nationally televised game of the 2012 campaign) against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Inside the final two minutes of regulation, Vanderbilt should have converted a fourth and seven when quarterback Jordan Rodgers threw an accurate pass to receiver Jordan Matthews along the right sideline. Somehow, the pass wasn't caught… and replays showed why. Matthews' arms were clearly held by the South Carolina defender just before the ball arrived. Textbook pass interference had been committed… but the on-site official didn't make the call.

Let's be clear about something here: Officiating big-ticket collegiate sports is hard. The pace of action and the athleticism of the players are so pronounced that lots of calls will be missed in real time. This doesn't get said enough – not nearly enough – but officials actually do a really good job. There are exceptions, of course – Jay Stricherz in the Pac-12 and Ron Cherry of the ACC, plus the ACC crew that officiated the Thursday night game between Virginia Tech and Miami. However, for the most part, officials handle a lot of difficult situations well. Perfection should not be expected of them. In football, holding can be called on almost every play. In baseball, ball-and-strike calls will be eternally subjected to second-guessing. In basketball, block-charge calls – made more complicated by the half-circle in the middle of the paint – receive an enormous amount of scrutiny on a regular basis. Officials aren't going to get these calls right all the time, or even 90 percent of the time. Judgment calls are messy, and that's part of the human element we live with and understand in sports.

What makes fans (in particular) and pundits angry, though, is that when certain kinds of calls can be clearly arrived at, the replay booth either messes up (the ACC's replay booth, as shown in the Virginia Tech-Clemson game from Oct. 20, just to give one example, is the worst in college football) or can't review the play. The anger you see and hear after a bad call is in many ways the (proper) emotional response to the fact that the call either wasn't made right… or can't be made right. Fans (and pundits, who are emotional beings, too…) don't want events to be decided unfairly. Too much money, time and energy have been invested in these activities. Too many jobs are at stake. Too many players are risking their bodies while not getting a paycheck. College football – like Major League Baseball, it should be said – owes it to its fans and on-field competitors to expand the use and application of instant replay technologies. The human element has its limits, and there's nothing wrong or somehow defeatist in admitting as much. Getting calls right is what counts.

Let's get back to the original point of this piece: Pass interference should be made reviewable. The South Carolina-Vanderbilt game began this season with a resoundingly clear example of how missed pass interference calls affect the outcomes of games. This past Saturday, the outcomes of two high-profile games were strongly influenced by errant pass interference calls. Both Nebraska and Michigan State got jobbed on dubious defensive pass interference calls when no-calls were appropriate. Unfortunately for Michigan State, the Spartans absorbed the impact of the last and most significant pass interference call on the Cornhuskers' winning drive in the final minute of regulation. Notre Dame's comeback from a 14-point deficit against Pittsburgh was something the Panthers certainly could have done something about, especially with better play selection and clock management when leading by eight in the final four minutes. With that having been said, a bad pass interference call on Pitt enabled Notre Dame to convert a fourth down when trailing 20-6 earlier in the fourth quarter.

The thing to realize about pass interference calls is that unlike (offensive) holding calls, they don't occur in the midst of the mess that is the line of scrimmage, with 10 or 12 or 14 bodies cluttering a small amount of space. Pass interference calls – particularly the ones that carry the most impact – occur down the field in mano-a-mano matchups. When one player does or doesn't violate the opponent's right to the ball, replay should be able to determine if a clear penalty has occurred. If there's any appreciable degree of doubt, the call on the field can stand. Replay reviews can and should be conducted in 30 to 45 seconds, getting a frontside and backside angle of the pass in question.

The bottom lines are easy to appreciate: Bottom line No. 1: Officiating is hard, so make replay more available to get calls right. Bottom line No. 2: Pass interference is the most important penalty/non-penalty call in football. Make it reviewable. Schools, players, coaches, fans – everyone and everything associated with college football – deserves as much.