In the game of football, there isn’t much that leaves me absolutely confused. Well, beyond a questionable coaching call that is. There are plenty of things that are surprising, shocking even. That’s why we love football. But confusing? Not so much. I have been pecking out my opinions on a keyboard long enough that I have a pretty good understanding of the game and the rules it’s played by.
So when something happens where I am left scratching my head, I like to dig into it to make sense of it.
The last time this happened was a year ago. The game was over, but Central Michigan was running a combination of a Hail Mary and hook and ladder play to upset the Cowboys in Stillwater. While the Chippewas were pulling off the upset, I was busy trying to figure out why they even had the ball. How in the world was Central Michigan awarded one untimed down?
Well, we know now that it was an officiating error. The penalty for intentional grounding against Mason Rudolph on fourth down was incorrectly applied.
A year later, I am once again left scratching my head, and ironically, it involves Oklahoma State and a fourth down, but this time the ball did not change possession.
The play in question came with 5:30 left in the first quarter when TCU punted the ball away on fourth down and four yards to go from the Oklahoma State 41 yard line.
During the play, Rodarius Williams, Oklahoma State #8, runs down the field with the gunner and they get tangled up on the far sideline. TCU #6, Innis Gaines, attempts to down the punt on the Oklahoma State three yard line, but the ball bounces off his chest. At that point, Williams makes the bone-headed decision to try to cover the ball for the Cowboys.
The officials on the field ruled it “holding, receiving team, number eight”, and a muffed punt recovered by TCU. The Horned Frogs declined the holding penalty.
So here is where things get weird. The play went to official review.
Out of the review, it was determined that Gaines had illegally touched the ball, and the Horned Frogs would now accept the holding penalty originally called on Williams.
For the Cowboys, it was a sigh of relief. Somehow, disaster had been adverted, and someone please get into Williams’ ear and make sure that never happens again. However, while OSU was breathing a sigh of relief, TCU was running another play from the Cowboy’s 31 yard line; a play that also went to review to see if a pass thrown by TCU quarterback Kenny Hill had hit the wire from the overhead camera. (It didn’t. It was just a duck.)
It was chaos during the review. Boos rained down on the officiated crew in chorus. Not because it was yet another review, but because no one quite understood why TCU had the ball.
I shared in that confusion. Did TCU receive an extra possession they shouldn’t have? I have spent the last couple of days digging into the rules.
This play boils down to two things: the illegal touching on TCU #6, and the holding penalty on OSU #8.
The Illegal Touching
A punt is considered a “scrimmage kick”, instead of a “free kick”, like a kick off. On a scrimmage kick, illegal touching occurs when a player from the kicking team is the first to touch the ball once it travels beyond the line of scrimmage.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Wait. What is this idiot talking about? Players from the kicking team can down a punt. This literally happens all this time!”, before you bash out those thoughts into the comments below, bear with me.
If the kicking team downs the ball, it’s technically illegal touching. Illegal touching is a violation, not a penalty. It does not draw a flag, although sometimes you will see an official mark it with a bean bag. Also, because it is not a foul, it cannot be used to offset an opposing penalty (like the holding called on OSU #8, but we’ll get to that in a minute).
So if it is not a penalty, what does it mean? It basically means that once the ball is officially down by someone having control of the ball, the receiving team has their choice of spots. They can take the ball where it was downed, or where it was illegally touched.
No matter what happens after the illegal touching, the receiving team will have the option to take the ball at that spot.
This means, the muff by OSU #8 has no bearing on the play. He could have picked the ball up, given it to a TCU player and walked him into the end zone holding his hand and OSU still should have gotten the ball at the spot of the illegal touching.
The illegal touching wasn’t the only factor on the play, though. There is the holding call on OSU #8 to consider.
Things get murky here. In the replay, you can clearly see Williams commit the penalty. That’s not up for debate. What is debatable, is whether or not the hold took place before or after the kick, and that’s all that matters here.
According to the rules, if a hold by the receiving team takes place before the kick, the penalty enforced is 10 yards from the previous spot. If that results in a first down for the kicking team, the kicking team retains possession of the ball. If a hold by the receiving team takes place after the kick, it is enforced at the end of the return, and the ball changes possession.
So possession of the ball hinged on whether or not the hold was committed before or after the kick. Based on the outcome, the officials must have ruled that the hold took place before the kick.
When the ball was kicked and the holding call seems to be bang-bang, and I am guessing that TCU fans will see the hold as the officials did on the field; that it happened before the kick. Oklahoma State fans on the other hand, probably see the hold as happening after the kick. The TCU defender is not pulled down until the ball is already well into its flight. Unfortunately, there is no replay of the hold from the officials angle to see what he saw. We only see the foul from behind the play, and our view is obscured by their bodies.
For what it’s worth, we spoke with our own rules consultant for his opinion on the call and he felt like the hold happened “well before” the kick.
Before I go any further, right or wrong, this didn’t change the outcome of the game. It affected the game, sure. TCU settled for a field goal at the end of the drive, but the real dagger was that the Horned Frogs had held the ball for 9:44 to OSU’s 2:21 by that point, and it was 115 degrees on the field. The OSU defense simply got gassed.
However, you can’t take something from the first quarter and say if it was different the other team would have won. Let’s be clear, TCU won that game. Oklahoma State was undisciplined and TCU did what they needed to do to pull off the upset. Credit to the Horned Frogs. Gary Patterson his staff out-coached Mike Gundy and company.
We reached out to Big 12 offices, who oversee Big 12 officials, for clarification on the call on Monday. However, as of when the article was published, we have not received a response from the conference office.