Three thousand miles from the goal line at Reser Stadium, Geoff Schwartz watched Oregon State’s takedown of his alma mater with mixed emotions.
Schwartz, who played tackle for Oregon and spent eight years in the NFL, was disappointed his Ducks lost both the game and any chance of sneaking into the playoff.
But as a fan of the conference, he was deeply frustrated that the officiating on Oregon State’s game-winning drive sparked a furor on social media.
“I see the Pac-12 a little differently, ” said Schwartz, who lives in Charlotte and co-hosts ‘Pac-12 Today’ on SiriusXM.
“I’m in ACC and SEC territory, and I desperately want my conference to be relevant.
“Here we had a great game, and the entire Twitter-sphere is talking about the officiating. It takes away from the product on the field.
“All anyone’s talking about in the broad spectrum is the officiating.”
It’s a familiar conversation.
The chaotic finish to a riveting game that carried postseason implications featured a series of controversial calls, stoppages of play, group chats, an injured quarterback and Beavers coach Jonathan Smith in passionate dialogue with the officials 20 yards onto the field.
The officiating crew was blasted on social media as the sequence played out in what was a slow-motion, nationally televised (ESPN) nightmare.
“The sequence on the goal line was awful, ” said Rod Gilmore, the ESPN analyst who called the game and a former Stanford defensive back.
“That just can’t happen.”
And yet it happens, again and again and again.
Two years ago, the Pac-12 experienced an unimaginable crisis when an administrator with no background in officiating interfered in the replay review process during the USC-Washington State game.
The 2019 season began with Pac-12 officials botching the finish to the Arizona State-Michigan State game to such a degree that the conference was forced to issue a public statement.
Two months later, Washington State lost 57 yards in field position when a penalty was mistakenly marked off against the Cougars, instead of Cal.
These are not little mistakes, the kind that surface weekly across the country.
“The last couple years, I’ve had a chance to call Big 12 and Mountain West games, and you see a lot of the same errors,” said Evan Moore, a Fox Sports analyst who played for Stanford and in the NFL.
“In the Pac-12, it’s sometimes more egregious than elsewhere.”
Pac-12 football has enough trouble gaining traction nationally with the time-zone challenge, the heavy load of night games and the Pac-12 Networks’ limited distribution.
The very last thing the conference needs is officiating blunders – big, giant, stinkin ‘blunders – to snatch attention from pulsating games and individual performances that would otherwise help spread the word.
The dumpster fire that emerged from former administrator Woodie Dixon’s infamous phone call to the replay command center during the USC-Washington State game eventually prompted action.
The athletic directors, mortified at the mismanagement and justifiably worried about the brand, pushed the conference to approve an external review.
The result was a six-month officiating audit conducted by Sibson Consulting, which had performed similar reviews for the NFL and NBA.
“It’s no secret that the Pac-12’s national reputation with officiating is not good, ” Gilmore said. “It’s why they were working to make changes.
“When mistakes happen in national broadcasts, that beats up the reputation.”
In the summer of 2019, Sibson pronounced Pac-12 officiating to be generally sound, but the firm issued a series of recommendations, which included:
– Changing the internal reporting process, so the David Coleman, the head of officiating, would report directly to commissioner Larry Scott instead of Dixon
– Improvements to the training program for officials.
– A new replay manual that codified the process and procedures
– An increase in transparency, which led to the conference issuing statements of clarification after controversial calls that impact the outcome of games
But 15 months later, what’s changed?
Yes, the conference has become more transparent; there’s a new replay manual; and Dixon is no longer in charge. He left the conference this summer and was replaced by Merton Hanks, a former NFL player.
Hanks runs the football operation and is Coleman’s boss, but he has been on the job for just three months – three of the most chaotic months in conference history.
The on-field officiating process visible to fans and media appears unchanged from its pre-Sibson existence.
“I haven’t seen improvement with the game management,” Gilmore said. “They’re too slow with their calls, their conferences, the replay. There’s no sense of urgency with that.
“They can’t have 60- or 70-second conferences after each flag.”
Moore attributes some of the fan and media outrage to a mistaken understanding of instant replay.
“Outside of targeting, ” he said,“ nothing is supposed to get re-officiated in the booth. Replay is supposed to overturn a call only if there’s indisputable video evidence. ”
He cited as examples two recent controversies, both involving Oregon State:
– The spot on Jermar Jefferson’s fourth-down, fourth-quarter run in Husky Stadium.
Jefferson appeared to gain the yard needed in the Red Zone but was ruled short of the line.
Without a camera angle from the opposite side of the field, Moore said, there was no indisputable evidence.
“You can argue that it’s hard to believe he didn’t get beyond the line to gain, but I need evidence and didn’t see it, ” Moore said.
– That was the case last weekend, too, when Beavers quarterback Tristan Gebbia appeared to score the go-ahead touchdown when he fell backward into the end zone.
Gebbia could be seen cradling the ball to his chest as he entered the mass of humanity, and his torso clearly crossed the plane.
The only way the ball could not have followed into the end zone was if it had, like some magic bullet, moved on its own to a position between his knees, which didn’t cross the line.
But because none of the available camera angles showed the ball itself in the end zone, the replay booth didn’t overturn the call on the field that Gebbia was stopped short.
“Given the lack of camera angles that could find indisputable video evidence that it was in the end zone, it’s hard to fault replay, ” Moore said.
“What needs to be attacked, is the call on the field.”
The call on the field.
That’s where it starts.
That’s what dictates the replay process (except for targeting).
And that’s where Pac-12 officials fall short, time and time again.
Combine the blown calls on the field with the limited camera angles in the booth, and the end result is, too often, an inferno.
It’s Washington State losing 57 yards in field position.
It’s the Jefferson spot in Husky Stadium.
It’s the Gebbia spot in Reser Stadium.
“The calls on the field: That’s the part for me that’s frustrating, ” Moore said. “And the offside, that’s baffling to me.”
It also was baffling to astronauts watching, with the naked eye, from the International Space Station.
After Gebbia was ruled short of the end zone by inches, the Beavers lined up for third-and-goal.
Oregon defensive tackle Austin Faoliu tried to jump the snap and was clearly, indisputably, offside.
But it wasn’t called.
“There’s no way that wasn’t offside,” Gilmore said. “It was so blatant, it was unacceptable.”
The play unfolded without a stoppage. Gebbia tried the right side, got stuff and was injured. (He isn’t available this week.)
The line judge, Maia Chaka (per the official statistics), was the official primarily responsible for both the Gebbia run on second down and the no-call on the Faoliu offside.
“The call on the field is critical, ” Gilmore said. “The number of cameras at my game compared to the ABC primetime is a huge difference.
“If it’s not the No. 1 or 2 game, where you have pylon cameras and the overhead camera, (the replay officials) are limited.”
(The Hotline asked the conference office if Coleman could address the calls at the end of the game but was told he is generally not available, except at the annual football media day.)
Messy as it was, the sequence could have been worse for the conference – much, much worse.
Had Oregon State not scored on a fourth-down plunge by backup quarterback Chance Nolan with 33 seconds remaining, the missed calls would have been seen as costing the Beavers the game.
“Oregon State saved them, ” Gilmore said. “If they hadn’t scored, that’s topic No. 1. It would have led SportsCenter.”
Three thousand miles from the goal line at Reser Stadium, Schwartz watched as his alma mater’s last-gasp possession fizzled and time expired.
The loss knocked the Ducks out of first place, extinguished their faint playoff hopes and set the stage for a year of trash talking by Oregon State fans.
Then he hopped on social media and got really depressed.
“The image isn’t good for the conference, ” he said. “We had a great game with a quarterback sneak and a rivalry and an upset. But Twitter was all about the officiating.
“We need to win at football, we need to win at basketball, and we need to not have everyone talking about the officiating.”
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