Smile Politely

A game of inches

Moments after Walter Camp instituted the rule changes on the ragtag rugby variations going around on college campuses and created what we now recognize as American football, the first college sports writer likely penned that the new contest was “a game of inches.” But that’s the thing about cliches. Oftentimes they’re true.

Sometimes painfully so.

The defensive battle that was the Illinois – Penn State game constantly, and in the final seconds, painfully, brought the hoary old chestnut to mind. Illinois lost the game, and it was lost by inches.

The final field goal attempt, well within our excellent kicker’s range, struck the upright straight on and bounced back. A field goal is a field goal so long as the ball goes through the uprights, even if it ricochets through. Illinois was literally inches from an overtime showdown and a chance to win the game.

This was far from the only play that was dramatically decided by inches.

Minutes before, an Illinois cornerback was called for passing interference in the end zone on a 4th down pass, giving PSU life on a drive that had otherwise sputtered. Penn State had driven from their own 20 to the Illini 32 yard line in a flurry of passing before the defense caught its footing. The PSU receiver watched the ball bounce off his hands in the end zone in a dropped pass that would have ended the Nittany Lions drive, but the flag saved them. Passing interference is a notoriously fickle call, driven more by perception than a formulaic application of a rule to an event. Had Illinois’ cornerback been inches one way or the other, his arm in an ever so slightly different position, a nearly identical play results in a no-call, and Illinois regains possession, still in the lead at 7-3.

When the interference call put PSU on the board, a few inches had already kept Illinois off. Illinois was looking to get on the board for the first time, setting up a run play near the goal line. Jay Prosch, the monster Illini fullback and all purpose hole-opener went in motion, moving left to right behind the Illinois line. As he turned and got reset, it appeared that he never quite came to a rest, and as he moved forward, he took his first advancing step just a split second before the snap. Prosch, who hasn’t had a penalty as long as I can remember, was flagged for illegal motion, which took away the resulting walk-in TD by Jason Ford. Six feet tall and 250 pounds, but just a few inches of movement by Prosch nullify a TD. As the final game was decided by 3, those few inches were ultimately crucial.

There were more crucial inches, some too painful to ponder. The first possession of the second half, Reilly O’Toole (sharing reps with Scheelhaase) completed a pass to A.J. Jenkins at or near the first down markers. It looked pretty clear that he had the ball and was down, and that the opposing defensive back took it away while he was (literally) sitting on the ground. Yet, it was ruled an interception. And then the referees told Ron Zook he couldn’t challenge the play, saying it was a nonreviewable call. One can only guess at the rationale behind this ruling, but the only thing that seems possible is that the referee believed he saw the ball move an inch or two in Jenkins’ hands, ruling that he never acquired possession (at which point he would be down), and therefore the ball was live and catchable by PSU, since the ball never hit the ground. A couple inches, real or perceived, result in a turnover.

As a side note, here’s a link to the rulebook regarding reviewable plays for the NCAA. Assuming the referees told Zook the play could not be reviewed, they were unquestionably wrong:

As a game, college football moves incredibly fast and the officials do an incredible job of getting the calls right in the instant, without the benefit of rewind. There will always be mistakes, and that is part of the game. The video review procedure was designed to take some of that randomness out of the game. Mistakes in making an in-the moment call are excusable. Mistakes in telling a coach that a play can not be reviewed are clearly unacceptable. As defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said in post-game interviews, “there was a lot of factors in the game that as a coach we are forbidden from talking about and there were things that just didn’t seem right and I feel really bad for our players…we gotta understand life is like that…”

Koenning’s defense was terrific for nearly the entire game: Penn State had only 209 yards total. The game was really all about the defenses, as the score remained knotted a double goose-egg until substantially into the third quarter. Illinois couldn’t capitalize on short field situations after the Illini defense gave them good opportunities to convert defensive turnovers into offensive points.

I can’t tell you how to feel about the game. Whether you view this as another letdown by an underperforming Illinois team, or a tough game that was lost on some fluky events against a nationally-elite defense on the road: that’s up to you. Illinois is off this upcoming weekend, finally getting a much needed bye week for regrouping. We’ll all have a lot of time to tally up the inches.

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