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The Sacramento Report: Big Game Controversies

Over the last few years the Grid Club has had referees as guests each year.  Each time I've been in attendance I've appreciated their perspective, because as fans everything we get is very one sided. They don't ever get to explain their perspective or explain their calls. After spending nearly a full season complaining about the refs it's a nice dose of perspective to hear from them at the end of the year.

Does that mean they get everything right? Not at all - and I think any ref would admit that they miss calls (and feel awful about it). But actually talking to two officials face-to-face is a good way to humanize the nearly faceless men in the black and white suits. And they seem to take fan complaints in stride - as one reminded me later, "it's your job as a fan to boo us. I wouldn't expect anything different."

Just by coincidence one of our two guest speakers happened to be the replay official at the Big Game, which means a few . . . shall we say 'controversial' calls were explained. Having watched the game live in Stanford stadium, I can't say if the explanations matched what I saw since my view was impossible to form an opinion over.  Hopefully it makes sense to those of you who watched on TV or have examined the replays.

Our refs were Dave Lambros, a replay official, and Jim Settle, a field ref. Many thanks to both for providing their perspective! We also heard from Cal running back coach Ron Gould, the respected dean of Cal assistant coaches.

As always, thanks to the wonderful CalBear81 for her excellent notes, allowing me to better paraphrase our speakers!

Ron Gould

Do you have a preferred bowl destination?

Honestly, I haven't even thought about it. I've only been thinking about beating ASU.

What are we hoping to do against ASU's defense?

We think we have players with the ability to exploit their defense. They're the type of defense that tends to line up in their base formation and dare you to beat them. It's a big game because they have lots to play for with a chance to get to the conference championship, and we have lots of reasons to play hard too.

Talk a little bit about how Isi Sofele has improved this year:

I'm extremely proud of the runningbacks. There has been a lot of negativity directed towards the team, but they have embraced what we wanted them to do, especially Isi. He's done a few things that we've asked, particularly: improving his ability to run between the tackles, getting better catching the ball, and his acceleration through the hole. He has gotten stronger, added muscle mass.

It seems like UCLA was a turning point for both the running game and the team as a whole.  What has changed since then?

We were devastated that we didn't play close to our potential. Guys were humble enough to look in the mirror and see what we needed to do to improve. I'm proud of the guys because they have done that as a group.

How did the loss of Will Kapp impact the Big Game?

It's tough, because he is an emotional and vocal leader, and he also leads by example. He's the quarterback of our running backs. But everybody loses key players, so we worked through it.  But it's tough to lose his passion.  If you cut his wrists he bleeds blue and gold.

Who is going to be fullback after Kapp and Tyndall graduate?

We've got Eric Stevens coming back, and Nico Doumont is coming up and will be good.

On ASU's run defense:

Their linebacker in the middle is one of the best in the country, and they will be a force.  Their front seven do a very good job.

Cal has had games after the Big Game the last few years that didn't go well.  What are the coaches doing to get the players fired up after the emotional drain of Big Game?

We have a lot at stake - we have yet to reach our full potential. We missed several runs against Stanford that we want to improve upon.  We have to be motivated to do better.

What traits do you look for in a player, and what traits can you teach vs. what traits are intrinsic and unteachable?

We look for things like speed, athletic ability, etc., that are tangible.  But what I've realized is that we need to find a young man with competitive spirit. You can't see that on film. You've got to see them play. An example is Shane Vereen. When I watched him compete, I knew that if it was 3rd and 3, that he would get me the first down. I also want good kids - good student, good person.

Jim Settle

Jim talked about some new rules and the process rules are approved

-For years kids had to have their knees covered by their uniforms. We no longer have to play fashion police, that rule was removed.  We used to ask coaches if the kids were properly equipped. Now we just have them sign a form.

-Unsportsmanlike penalties are now automatic 1st downs, and fouls when the ball is live are treated as live ball fouls rather than dead ball fouls. This has only happened twice in the nation this year. (ed - the LSU punter being the most famous victim!)

-Coaches are now permitted to have TVs in the booth to allow them to decide whether to challenge a call or not.  However, they are only allowed to watch the live feed of the broadcast - they can't rewind and rewatch.

-In the last minute of games fouls that stop the clock (false start, for example) now have an optional 10 second runoff for the team accepting the penalty. The only way the team committing a violation can prevent the runoff is by calling a timeout if they have one.

-It is now illegal for three defensive linemen to target one offensive lineman on a field goal/PAT attempt only.  No idea why this one was added!

-If a player has run out of bounds it is illegal to continue to block them and prevent them from coming back in bounds. That's a 15 yard penalty.

-Illegal shifts have been changed to a dead ball foul in an effort to prevent unnecessary plays that would be called back anyway and might result in players getting hurt.

-It no longer matters if receivers try to catch the ball or not - as long as they are 'in the area' a pass cannot be considered intentional grounding.

-When it is and is not illegal to block below the waist: (norcalnick note - this rule is incredibly complicated and a nightmare to call in a game.  I doubt I did it justice.  If you are curious I highly suggest you download a copy of the NCAA rules handbook.) The defense cannot block below the waist five yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  On offense - receivers can only block below the waist in a north-south direction or toward the sideline of the side he is on the field. This rule is almost impossible to officiate because when a wide receiver goes in motion his blocking rules don't change, but not every ref is looking at him in motion because they have other parts of the field to be watching. Communication is key, and this flag is a common one to see waived off. I think in the next 2 years or so any kind of blocking below the waist will not be allowed, period.

-Illegal batting or kicking of the ball is now a 10 yard penalty instead of 15.

-Ejected players must leave the field now. Previously they were allowed to stay on their own sidelines.

Jim Settle and Dave Lambros

Jim and Dave both answered some general ref questions:

How do you settle it when two officials call something different on the same play?

Often one official has more info - like a player stepped out of bounds earlier than one official was able to see, or that the ball was tipped at the line.  That other official is happy to get that extra info.  We try to make eye contact with other officials before giving a final signal if possible.

Cal has had a terrible time with offensive line holding this year.  Does a team's reputation precede them with refs?  (example: The Oakland Raiders).

Not at all.  You just don't think about what team it is at games.

You often hear announcers saying things like 'you could call holding on every single play.' So what does constitute holding?

It used to be that offensive linemen kept their hands near their chest and held their hands as fists to prevent even the opportunity to hold.  But now you're allowed to have open hands, and you can even grab his jersey - as long as you are facing the player.  But as soon as he turns and tried to move away and disengage - then you have to let it go.

How do you spot the ball when a running back plunges into a huge group of players?  You can't possible see where he is!

It's a challenge.  Honestly, there have been times when you say to yourself, 'I can see where his butt is, and so that means the ball must be this far past.'

Do you work with the same group of refs in each game?

Typically, yes. There are weeks when there are more games than Pac-12 crews, so that requires some moving around and people working with different groups.  Also, there is a new rule that if you are a graduate of a Pac-12 school, you cannot work a game involving that school.  This creates occasional needs to substitute refs.

Why don't refs wear more protective gear?

Basically, because if we did we couldn't keep up.  We're supposed to be able to chase down kids who can run 4.4 40s, so if we had any extra weight on our body we'd be left in the dust.  We've all been run over on the field - it's an occupational hazard.

Dave Lambros

Dave answered a few questions specific to either the Big Game or replay reviews

What kind of equipment do you get?

Early replay guys had terrible equipment - old, fuzzy, small displays.  Now we have HD and excellent equipment - it freezes the image down to milliseconds and allows us to zoom.

On the Big Game fumble:

I originally looked at it because it looked like he might have stepped out of bounds as he tip-toed the sidelines.  But as I watched the play I realized that the ball clearly came loose. The issue was whether he regained control of the ball. As I watched it, he got hit real hard, and the ball popped up and back down to his torso. The ball kinda fell against his side, and it looked like he tried to pin it to his side with his elbow. But that doesn't constitute possession! When he fell to the ground he still hadn't re-established possession according to the rules.  

And even though the play was whistled dead, the ball was loose and it was clearly grabbed by a Stanford player. It's a rule now that even when a play is whistled dead you're allowed to review a possible fumble. We won't change the call if it's not 100% clear who recovered the fumble on a play that was ruled dead, but in this case it was 100% clear that a Stanford player recovered the ball. That's why we had to change the call on the field.

On the block in the back and sideline interference call

The block in the back call wasn't actually on the player next to Andrew Luck when Luck fell down - it was actually a player closer to the goalline. The sideline interference call came because the side judge on Cal's side of the field was basically run over by 30 or so excited Cal players who surged onto the field.  He was actually nice - he could have called a 15 yard penalty instead of a 5 yard penalty. Of course, if the block in the back hadn't happened the sideline interference would have been a dead ball penalty and the touchdown would have counted.

On other Big Game difficulties

As Cal was driving for a touchdown in the 4th quarter I got a call from the TV crew saying that they could get a camera down to the goal line for review purposes.  I asked him why and he said 'Well, there are about 20 or so kids in Cal and Stanford sweaters lined up starring at each other, and they refuse to move!' So I told them you've got to get those kids out of there, I've got to have a goal line view! Luckily there ended up not being any controversy on those plays, but we forwarded the issue on so it hopefully won't happen again.

How long does a replay review get?

They say 'take as much time as you need, but don't go over 90 seconds!'  They usually get on you if you take too long but if it's a particularly complicated play they're lenient about it.

How many camera angles do you get?

it's totally based on the TV crew.  For Oregon/Washington I had 17 cameras.  For the Big Game there were only 7.  Replay officiating is based totally on an entertainment industry.  Once I requested a goal line shot but couldn't get it because that camera was busy showing crowd shots!