Although Northwestern forced five turnovers (and did not commit any) and clearly outplayed the Wisconsin Badgers for most of Saturday's game at a cold Camp Randall Stadium, what will be the most talked about aspect of the Wildcats' 13-7 victory will be the officiating, not NU's dominant defense or ineffective offense.
Three times, twice on the last drive of the game with Wisconsin needing just a touchdown and the subsequent extra point to take the lead, the referees used the review system available to them in order to call back Badgers' touchdowns. Their decisions elicited outrage, criticism and snowballs from Wisconsin's fans after the game.
But, despite the ire, those calls might actually have been the correct ones.
The first of the three plays in question occurred in the middle of the third quarter, when Northwestern's Hunter Niswander had to punt after another failed offensive drive. He booted it 49 yards from the NU 29 to the Wisconsin 22, where Alex Erickson appeared to break through multiple Wildcat special-teamers en route to a 78-yard punt return touchdown that got Camp Randall loud and seemed to give Wisconsin a 13-10 lead.
But, upon review, the return was nullified and the ball was returned to the Wisconsin 22-yard line due to an apparent invalid fair catch by Erickson. Erickson appears to wave his arms to his teammates in a way that's telling them to stay away from the ball. It doesn't look anything like a deceiving fake fair catch signal, but when you take a look at the NCAA rules on fair catches, it clearly says that any signal in a punt return situation that is not a clear fair catch signal is actually invalid. The ball, in that case, is then returned to the site of the original catch.
Fox Sports' NFL's rules analyst Mike Pereira agreed with the referees' ruling, and it looks like they got the call completely right, which they deserve credit for.
Those asking about the invalid fair catch signal Wisconsin, that is a correct call. The get-away signal is invalid by rule.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) November 21, 2015
Even Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and Erickson himself admitted that the play was illegal and it was dealt with properly by the officials.
Alex Erickson and Paul Chryst agree that Erickson did make an illegal fair catch and it was called correctly. As for the Peavy catch ...— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) November 22, 2015
Then, in the game's final minute, there were two back-to-back plays on which the referees' calls could have been and were questioned.
Wisconsin had mounted an inspired drive down the field in an attempt to tie Northwestern and potentially take the lead. After starting the drive with the ball on their own 26, following a Niswander punt, the Badgers moved all the way down to the Northwestern 23. Then, Joel Stave found tight end Troy Fumagalli down the middle for an apparent game-tying 23-yard touchdown.
Once again, the officials went to the video, conferred and ruled, correctly, that Fumagalli's knee was down before the ball reached the goal line. There was no real controversy here. It was the correct decision to overturn the call on the field.
The Badgers, after the Fumagalli catch, had the ball on the Northwestern goal line on first down with no timeouts but more than enough time to score. Then, on the very next play, this happened:
Stave appeared to find receiver Jazz Peavy in the end zone for the game-evening touchdown and, with a successful PAT, the Badgers would have had a 14-13 advantage with under 30 seconds to play. On first look, it appears as if Peavy has undeniable possession of the ball as he gets his feet in bounds and then falls out of bounds.
But, even though Peavy makes a few steps in the end zone, he does bobble the ball through his fall as he hits the ground.
This is where things get complicated. Here's what the rudimentary section of the official NCAA rule book has to say:
The key parts here are b. and c., but they leave plenty of room for interpretation and ambiguity. For example, how does one define whether or not a player "goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass"? That's the question that pertains to Peavy's catch, because that's not what he does. He goes to the ground as a result of being pushed by VanHoose. If he hadn't been, he likely would've stayed upright.
So at what point does he go from "in the act of catching a pass" to a second phase where he is forced to the ground by a defensive player after already completing the catch? For example, if Peavy had taken six steps and then been leveled by, say, Godwin Igwebuike, and lost control of the ball, the catch would surely still stand.
Towards the end of the NCAA rule book though, under "Official NCAA Football Rules Interpretations," the rules get more specific:
Technically, Peavy goes airborne for the catch, so this interpretation applies. The question then becomes what constitutes "completing all the requirements of a catch," and whether or not VanHoose first touches Peavy before he does that.
For the answer, we turn back to the initial requirements of a catch, regardless of whether or not a player is going to the ground:
So if Peavy has done all those things before he is initially contacted by VanHoose, it's a touchdown. But if he hasn't, it's not. He certainly has fulfilled the first requirement. It appears on replay that he satisfies the second requirement by keeping his left foot in contact with the turf as the ball hits his hands.
The ruling essentially comes down to which of the following two things comes first: VanHoose's contact with Peavy (his right arm appears to make the initial contact) or Peavy maintaining control of the ball "long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game." The problem is that there is no specific definition of an "act common to the game."
If it is deemed that VanHoose contacts Peavy before he has time to "perform an act common to the game," then Peavy must maintain control going to the ground. He doesn't, so if that is the case, the score should've been overturned, as it was. If it is deemed that Peavy does maintain control "long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game" before VanHoose touches him, then it should be a touchdown, as it was originally called.
One could argue that on such a close call, the call on the field should have stood. But at the very least, this decision isn't flat out wrong by any means.
After the ruling was overturned, Deonte Gibson sacked Stave before leaving the game (presumably due to injury) for backup Bart Houston, who threw an incompletion in the end zone on fourth down following a Wisconsin spike to stop the clock. Northwestern took over and kneeled the ball to seal the victory.