Memphis’ wild punt-return TD vs. Mississippi State counted only because of officials’ mistakes

Memphis' wild punt-return TD vs. Mississippi State counted only because of officials' mistakes

The key touchdown in Memphis’s two-point victory over Mississippi State on Saturday might not have been the tremendous heads-up play that it was hailed in the moment, but rather a complete officiating failure.

At least one, and probably two, rules foulups occurred on Calvin Austin III’s stealth 94-yard punt return that gave Memphis an 11-point lead with 5:36 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Tigers held on to win 31-29.

The clear miss was that Austin was one of two Tigers on the field wearing No. 4. That’s against NCAA rules and the touchdown should have been called back.

Memphis’s official roster lists Austin and defensive lineman Maurice White as No. 4s. White lined up as a rusher on the punt return team.

The second failure was the visible one, but there was also a sliver of gray area. Austin picked up the ball after two Mississippi State players had touched it near the goal line. By rule, the Bulldogs were guilty of illegal touching, but the ball stayed live until it stopped moving.

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And then the ball came to rest just before Austin swooped in, grabbed it and took off.

The nearest official (an SEC officiating crew worked the game) had just thrown his beanbag to mark the downing of the ball and was in the midst of signaling the end of the play when Austin made his move. The surprised official backed off.

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NCAA Rule 4’s wording on when a ball is declared dead seems to allow for wiggle room. 

The official wording is “when a free kick, scrimmage kick or any other loose ball comes to rest and no player attempts to secure it.” There’s no time limit listed for when a player can attempt to secure a ball at rest. Austin beat that clock to the officials’ satisfaction.

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But the penalty for two No. 4s should have forced the Tigers to take possession inside their 10, or given Mississippi State 5 yards and a fourth-and-1 near midfield. And then none of the hair-splitting about when the ball stopped moving would have been necessary.

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach agreed with the call on the field and said he didn’t see anyone signal the play dead. But again, the replay showed the nearest official beginning to signal before Austin jumped in.

In fact, Leach was more upset that officials seemed to blow a call on the Bulldogs’ ensuing onside kick after they cut the Tigers’ lead to 31-29.

“Don’t even get me started. I’ll have to decide whether I want to spend some money before I get into that too much, Leach was quoted as saying.

Original source here

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.