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Worst. Replay Officials. Ever.

I almost went somewhere I never go.

The standing THF policy concerning officiating is that you cannot blame the referees for a loss.  Had UNC lost to Notre Dame on Saturday I would have openly blamed the officials for it.  The blown call on Brooks Foster's 3rd down catch giving UNC what was likely the game sealing first down nearly gave birth to a Notre Dame game winning touchdown.  This is a rare situation where you can point to one missed call by the officials as the fault for potentially losing game.  Yes, UNC stopped Notre Dame and had the opportunity to stop them but it should have gone there.  Cam Sexton should have been taking knees down on the Notre Dame end of the field running the clock out instead of watching in horror along with every other Heels fan within sight of the game as Notre Dame came close to winning the game.  Let's take a look at how the abomination unfolded.

With two minutes left in the game UNC faced a 3rd down just across midfield leading 29-24. Notre Dame had one timeout left so a UNC first down would have likely ended the game.  UNC got with the gutsy pass play call and Sexton executes it perfectly in rolling out of the pocket to find Brooks Foster down field who catches the football then goes down with his foot, his elbow, body and knee clearly touching the ground. As Foster rolled over the ball popped out.  The rule on the field as completion and first down.  The play is subsequently review in what the ABC announcers say will be a quick review to confirm the call on the field.  After several minutes it becomes clear the Big East replay officials are convinced the call on the field is wrong since they are taking forever to render a decision.  When they finally did, it was ruled an incomplete pass forcing UNC to punt and giving Notre Dame new life.

Here is the crux of the issue as I see it: Foster caught the ball, made contact with the ground with his foot, knee, body and elbow, but after rolling over the ball comes out.  This entire sequence was ruled a catch by the player who was down by contact and therefore ending the play meaning there was no fumble.  This was the call and according to the replay guidelines it requires "incontrovertible evidence" to overturn that call.  Now there are two aspects to look at.  One was whether it was a fumble and the other is whether it was a completed pass.  Since the replay does not show the ball popping loose until after Foster was down and he rolled over, there is no way on earth this can be called a fumble.  That leaves the possibility the pass was incomplete by rule.

The genesis of this comes from a rule UNC fans have seen invoked before.  Last season versus NCSU Hakeem Nicks went up in the end zone, caught the ball, got flipped over and when his elbow contacted the ground the ball popped loose.  This was declared an incomplete pass because the rule states the receiver if he catches the ball in the air and comes down must maintain possession when he contacts the ground.  In this case the following rule 7-3-6 was probably applied and it is explained in this scenario from the NCAA rulebook:

XI. Airborne receiver A85 possesses the ball and in the process of going to the ground, first contacts the ground with his left foot as he falls to the ground inbounds. Immediately upon hitting the ground, the ball comes loose and touches the ground. RULING: Incomplete pass. An airborne receiver must maintain control of the ball if going to the ground in the process of completing a catch.

In this case the replay officials are saying that Foster possessed the football but did not maintain possession once he hit the ground on the basis of the ball eventually coming loose as he rolled over after he contacted the ground.  That is all well and good but you have one issue:  It was ruled a catch on the field which means you would have to come up with indisputable evidence showing the ball coming loose when Foster hit the ground.  Such evidence does not exist.  Every replay shows Foster catching the ball and coming with one foot, then his knee, then his elbow and finally him rolling over at which point the ball pops out.  The last visual of the ball was that it was in Foster's arm just before he came in contact with the ground.  At the moment Foster touches the ground with his elbow the ball cannot be seen from any angle available.  So it is pure speculation that the ball was loose when Foster came down.  Yes it is agreed the ball came loose at some point after Foster came down but the visual evidence needed to make that call is simply not there and saying it was incomplete based on the fact the ball was loose after Foster rolled over does not, in my opinion, meet the burden of proof required to overturn the call on the field.

In short, the replay officials opted to overturn a call which was correct on the field without the proper visual evidence to do so.  Had the play been allowed to stand UNC would have killed the clock and won the game.  Since it was overturned Notre Dame received the ball back and drove down field nearly getting into the end zone.  What ultimately stopped Notre Dame was yet another replay ruling that Irish receiver Golden Tate had fumbled the ball prior to being down by contact.  This was indeed the correct call since replay shows Tate catching the ball then landing on top of a UNC defender and as he is on top of that defender the ball starts to come loose.  Tate subsequently hit the ground but in the process finished knocking the ball away resulting in a fumble that UNC recovered.  This was initially ruled a completed pass and Tate was down by contact.  Unlike the Foster "incomplete pass" the ball is clearly seen coming loose before Tate touches the ground which made it a fumble.

I have said many times that my greatest problem with instant replay in college is the calls still seem to be ruled incorrectly.  ACC officials never seem to overturn calls and apparently Big East officials love to do it every chance they get.  This is the great inequity in college football.  Officials make bad calls and the system meant to correct them also fails to correct the situation.  In many ways we really have to live with it but when it almost costs a team the game, it really should be overhauled.