Memphis savage punt return against Mississippi State only mattered because of officials’ mistakes

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The key touchdown to Memphis’ two-point victory over Mississippi State on Saturday may not have been the formidable head-to-head play he was hailed at that time, but rather a complete failure of arbitration.

Two rule faults occurred in Calvin Austin III’s stealthy 94-yard punt return that gave Memphis an 11-point lead with 5:36 left in the fourth quarter. The Tigers held on to win 31-29.

The obvious lack was that Austin was one of two Tigers on the field wearing the number 4. It’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.4. White lined up as a rusher on the return punt team.

The second failure was visible, but there was also a gray area. Austin recovered the ball after two Mississippi State players hit it near the goal line. Typically, the Bulldogs were guilty of illegal touchdown, but the ball stayed alive until it stopped moving.

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

The closest official (a team of SEC officials was working on the game) had just thrown his beanbag to score the goal of the ball and was signaling the end of the game when Austin made his move. The surprised official stepped back.

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The wording of NCAA Rule 4 about when a ball is declared dead seems to leave room for maneuver.

The official formulation is “when a free kick, a scrimmage kick or any other free ball comes to rest and no player attempts to secure it”. The SEC said in a statement on Saturday night that the bullet had not yet come to rest when Austin retrieved it.

But the conference also said that the official’s “inadvertent” signal should have stopped play. The signal should have been reviewed and the review should have detected the error. The ball would then have been placed where it was reported dead.

The SEC also acknowledged that officials missed Memphis’ penalty for duplicate uniform numbers.

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If officials had got it right, Memphis would have taken possession of their 10s or Mississippi State would have gained 5 yards and faced a fourth and one near midfield. Besides, it wouldn’t have been necessary to split your hair when the ball stopped moving.

Before the SEC made its statement, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach told reporters he agreed with the call on the field and said he had seen no one report the game dead. But again, video in the room showed the closest official starting to report before Austin intervened.

In fact, Leach was more upset that officials appeared to make an appeal on the Bulldogs ‘offensive kick after reducing the Tigers’ lead to 31-29.

“Don’t even start me. I’m going to have to decide if I want to spend the money before I start too much, Leach was quoted as saying.


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