Changes are likely coming to the ineligible lineman downfield rule that referees missed during a pivotal 73-yard Ole Miss touchdown in its 43-37 win over Alabama on Saturday night.
But a proper solution won’t be here until 2016 at the earliest. Until then, we could see the same blown call affect more games.
SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw spoke with the media on Wednesday to discuss why future SEC contests could hinge on “downfield” calls being made or missed.
“This is a difficult play for the umpire to get,” Shaw said, adding that the rule forbids offensive lineman from going more than three yards downfield before a downfield pass (one that travels across the line of scrimmage) is released.
“Traditional drop-back passes (the umpires) handle very well,” he said. “But plays that present themselves as a run — when the umpire is evaluating interior linemen blocks — he’s not watching the ball. If he’s watching the ball, we’ve got mayhem going on in the interior line. So that’s where he’s focused. We don’t want the umpire ball-watching.”
But the umpire is also responsible for guessing when the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand. Therein lies the issue.
“When was it released?” is the first question an umpire asks himself or herself, according to Shaw.
“Where were those linemen? This is a difficult call,” he said.
This is something that can be altered, in terms of referees’ “mechanics,” as Shaw calls them.
The SEC installed an eighth referee this season, and Shaw said coordinators can add responsibilities for the linesmen and line judge in order to make downfield judgment calls easier on the umpire, who stands behind the linebackers at the start of every play.
Even with the potential switch, the NCAA appears to be in no-man’s land before an important change next summer.
This year, there was debate about whether to adopt an NFL-style rule (roughly: legal zone narrows from three yards to one) regarding ineligible linemen downfield, but Shaw said that the playing rules oversight panel tabled it until 2016.
“This is a national issue,” he said. “We as coordinators have been talking about this play, and we’re trying to solve it. Just like the teams… they’re looking at film and trying to improve every week. We’re doing the same thing.”
Alabama was hurt by a similar situation in the “Kick Six” Iron Bowl two years ago, when Auburn sold a run play before quarterback Nick Marshall tied the game with a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Replays showed that multiple Tigers linemen were past the line of scrimmage, but were not past the imaginary three-yard marker. The movement made Crimson Tide defensive backs crash toward the line of scrimmage, allowing Auburn receivers free real estate downfield.
While Ole Miss appeared to actually commit an infraction on Chad Kelly’s 73-yard touchdown pass to Cody Core this past Saturday, the call was missed. And there will likely be similar issues moving forward because of the difficulty of the decision.
“I think some of this is a concern, and hopefully we’ll be able to do it better in the future,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday. “But I think we have a lot of good people in charge of the officiating that will do the best they can to get it right.”
Shaw said replay could be an option in future years, but the call will likely retain a strictly human element.
“We’ve got to officiate the rule as it is,” Shaw said.
— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) September 20, 2015