Sooner Nation got an answer on Monday, but not the one it wanted.
And the Big 12 Conference came off looking amateurish.
Greg Burks, Big 12 Conference coordinator of officials, said Monday at the end of the league’s weekly coaches conference call that Oklahoma’s Trejan Bridges did indeed illegally touch the football before the ball traveled 10 yards on OU’s last-minute onside kick during the Sooners’ 48-41 loss at Kansas State on Saturday.
We could all anticipate that would the case. The ball clearly bounced off Bridges.
But then, the bombshell: the fact that a Kansas State player clearly blocked Bridges to the ground and seemingly forcing Bridges to contact the ball — which would be understood as “forced touching” and thus not a penalty on the kicking team — is simply not a reviewable play under current replay rules.
The rule in question is Rule 2-11-4-c, Forced Touching (of the football). But while Bridges’ contact with the ball is reviewable, the cause for him touching it apparently is not.
“The question of forced touching is not something that falls under the replay review guidelines,” Burks said.
Yet, after conferring with Burks immediately after the game, referee Reggie Smith told pool reporter Kelly Hines of the Tulsa World on Saturday, “We did consider all aspects of forced touching.”
So I asked Burks on Monday whether those two things were incongruent, whether he wishes Smith would have clarified on Saturday that forced touching was not reviewable.
Burks answered “Yes,” but than all but blamed the media.
“He was responding — the pool reporter’s question was about forced touching,” Burks said. “So we responded to the pool reporter’s question and quoted the rule, which is 2-11-4, about forced touching. What should have been asked was, ‘Is that reviewable? And what is reviewable on a kick,’ which is a different question. So it’s a little bit out of line, but I think we leave it up to the media to figure out what question they want to ask. And so while that probably didn’t answer the question the way he intended, we answered the question the way it was asked.”
(For the record, a pool reporter is a member of the media already on site to cover the game who is designated to ask officials for rules clarification and application. In the NFL, for instance, a pool reporter is designated before the game. That’s supposed to be the case for major college football games, too, per guidelines established by the Football Writers Association of America, as well as other major sports, but these interactions are infrequent enough that assigning a pool reporter before the game is almost always overlooked. Hines volunteered after the game to be that day’s pool reporter. In this case, she said she was asked to submit her question to a liaison, and after waiting 30 minutes for a response, Smith came out and read the prepared statement, and she was not allowed to ask any follow-up questions.)
Monday afternoon, Hines wrote that she asked “whether the forced touching rule was applicable.”
That should have been clear enough for Smith and Burks to respond, simply, “forced touching is not reviewable.”
Instead, they hid behind a vague policy and a prepared statement and played a game of semantics, hoping it would just go away.
Burks also answered a question that reeks of a phenomenon that fans detest: officials protecting officials.
Burks was asked by Jason Kersey of The Athletic, regardless of whether it was reviewable, if he thought there was forced touching. That answer also caused a lot of head-scratching.
“Generally, we don’t talk about judgment,” Burks said, “but after having this conversation with Rogers Redding, the national coordinator, I do not believe there was forced touching on this play. The rulebook talks about ‘engaged’ and ‘blocked into.’ As officials, what we discussed is ‘active’ and ‘passive.’ If a player is actively involved in a block and is touched by the ball, that is not considered to be forced touching. The additional contact by the second Oklahoma player on this play, all of those things went together that had we ruled touching, I don’t believe we would have had forced touching.
“But I want to reiterate, whether we would or wouldn’t, that is not something that is reviewable. We can only review the touch.”
He “does not believe there was forced touching on this play.”
Given two days to work on the proper response, somehow the Big 12 looks even more foolish.
Instead of, “We missed the forced touching call on the field, but unfortunately that is not reviewable. We apologize for the error,” the Big 12’s stance is “I do not believe there was forced touching on this play.”
On every replay, a Kansas State player clearly engages Bridges as Bridges runs upfield. Bridges is hit and goes down, and as he goes down, Gabe Brkic’s onside kick hits him short of the 10-yard barrier and deflects upfield, where Brayden Willis recovers at the K-State 38-yard line.
OU trailed by 7 points with 1:43 to play and should have had a chance to send the game to overtime. Instead, K-State was awarded possession at the OU 44 and knelt on the ball for the win.
Burks’ estimation that hard blocking contact from the K-State player didn’t force Bridges to touch the football is just wrong. If Bridges isn’t blocked, the ball doesn’t hit him and instead crosses the 45-yard line untouched.
(Of course, if the ball hadn’t touched Bridges, who knows where it ends up? Maybe out of bounds, or maybe Kansas State recovers.)
We’ve seen this phenomenon on TV for a generation now, a network brings a former official into the booth to discuss the calls on the field, to lend some expertise. Invariably, instead of respecting his employer and answering the questions fans want answered, he offers up a thin veil to hide the mistakes of his former colleagues. Mike Carey was a great official, but he was an abysmal analyst because he never called it like he saw it. He only defended the stripes.
It’s gotten better in recent years, but we can all still see through the veil. We know what mistakes were made. Yet the Great and Powerful Wizard tells us to ignore the man behind the curtain. It’s absurd.
Now, to be clear, Burks doesn’t work for a TV network. Or the fans. He works for the Big 12, and his job, in some measure, is to protect his officials. I get that.
But don’t try to tell us that we don’t see what we’re seeing. Contact is contact. Blocking is blocking.
Also, a Twitter follower pointed out an article in the 2019 NCAA football rule book that suggests Burks and Smith were wrong. Rule 12, Article 7 is loosely referred to as the common sense rule:
Interestingly, Article 8 clarifies that players from the kicking team are not allowed to block inside of 10 yards on an onnside kick, while players on the receiving team are.
Earlier on the Big 12 call, during his usual 10:10 a.m. slot, OU coach Lincoln Riley was asked to describe what he was told.
“They miss a call on the field, reviewed it and the determination was they could add illegal touching after that, but they could not factor in – because of the restrictions of replay – could not factor in if he was blocked or not. That’s kind of how I understood it,” Riley said.
According to Riley, Burks acknowledged the missed call to him, which contradicts Burks’ declaration on the conference call that he does not believe there was forced touching on this play.
“It’s unfortunate that it was missed on the field,” Riley said. “It’s a tough call, it’s a bang-bang call. It’s happening pretty fast. When it went to replay, it just kind of, one of those gray areas or one of those areas where, at least the rules right now prevent replay from looking at it or from being able to decide if he was blocked or not. It was a restriction of the rules in replay that just did not go in our favor.
“When it gets to replay, situations like that, from what we’ve been told, is they are not allowed to rule on if the kicking team player was blocked or not. All they are allowed to rule on is if you touched the ball.”
Riley and Burks spoke about the call and the replay earlier Monday.
“I can tell you he was extremely professional,” Burks said. “He’s always extremely professional. Our conversation was around the rule and he expressed his thoughts that that should be part of replay. We all know that replay continues to grow in all aspects. But as of now my point to him was we followed the rule exactly as it is right now. All new rules that come about happen because of different plays that occur in our game and that is something that will be reviewed in the offseason. But we handled this correctly in this scenario.”
As replay continues to evolve, there will naturally be additions to what plays can be reviewed. So in the future, maybe this won’t happen.
Still, it seems extremely shortsighted to implement a rule that relates to contact between two players and not make that rule available for video review. But that’s where we are.
Burks also said the league is discussing a change to the pool reporter policy, wherein reporters would submit questions directly to him and his staff in Las Colinas rather than have a face-to-face Q&A with the game referee.
That flies in the face of the more than five-minute Q&A that Mike Defee had with a pool reporter after this year’s OU-Texas game.
Worse that that, it only adds to the Big 12’s widening veil of ambiguity.
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.