One can argue that Northwestern never should have been in this position. And perhaps that’s true. But in the end, one crazy play—which officially only featured one fumble but looked to have featured two changes of possessions—determined Northwestern’s fate in its season opener.
Here’s the play in full (via ESPN):
There are a few questions to be answered when the official goes to instant replay: First, is Clayton Thorson down before Robert Spillane (No. 10, Western Michigan) rips the ball out? The answer to this is pretty clearly no—there wasn’t much question about it in real time, and replay easily confirmed that.
The ball begins bouncing and rolling toward the sideline when Devontae Ginwright (No. 26) decides to run over and pick it up for reasons we will never know. What we do know, however, is that if this ball had simply rolled out of bounds without anyone touching it, the result would have been a touchback. Ginwright trying to retrieve the ball makes no sense. Regardless, he does, and he clearly does so before going out of bounds. This is part two of the replay decision: if Ginwright had already stepped out of bounds by the time he picked up the ball, it also would have been a simple and straightforward touchback. But that’s not the case, as we see here.
What happens next—the third part of the review—next cannot be made up. Instead of simply falling down with the ball out of bounds, which would have actually made sense, Ginwright inexplicably flings the ball back into play blindly while falling out of bounds.
Western Michigan dude just tried to GIVE NORTHWESTERN A TD. But it was ruled touchback. https://t.co/ADg4BMjK0J— Chris Vannini (@ChrisVannini) September 3, 2016
Solomon Vault (No. 4, Northwestern) springs to the ball alertly and makes a clear recovery in bounds, along with teammate Bennett Skowronek (No. 88) also in the vicinity. Green space between Vault/Skowronek/the ball and the sideline is apparent.
In this case, it would have been Northwestern’s ball, though a holding call earlier in the play would have been enforced, pushing the Wildcats to the 16 instead of in the endzone with a touchdown. Still, the Wildcats would have had first and goal at the 16 with under three minutes left and down just a point—a position in which the Wildcats could either still try to score six or at the very least settle for a short field goal and the lead with not much time remaining.
However, it did not end up mattering that Vault fell on the ball, and thus, this final aspect of the review turned out to be the crucial one: Ginwright was ruled to have been out of bounds before he could push the ball back into play with his left hand.
Here is the best look made available on replay, given that Ginwright’s back was turned to the pylon camera, which was also blocked by the ballboy and the sideline referee:
This is an extremely close call. When does the ball leave Ginwright’s hand? Can it really be determined? Here are two outcomes, broken down into three frame-by-frame pictures:
The ball starts coming out at either A) or B) or somewhere in between, before Ginwright’s right foot hits the ground.
In both of these cases, Northwestern would have taken over with a first-and-goal at the 16 with 2:54 on the clock.
The second outcome is that the ball is still in Ginwright’s hand when he lands out of bounds, essentially a very dumb and risky play with no intent of doing the football-smart thing, but still resulting in the best possible scenario for Western Michigan.
Outcome 2 is what happened—or at least what the referees stood with—according to Pat Fitzgerald when asked about the play and its explanation in his press conference.
“They said it was a fumble that went into the endzone, and if the player had possession, it’s a touchback,” Fitzgerald said in his post-game press conference.
In a sentence, Devontae Ginwright was extremely lucky that his right foot happened to hit the ground (or at least the referees ruled it did) a split second before he was no longer touching the ball and pitched it back into play.
Somewhat importantly, the head referee announced the play “stands” instead of the play “is confirmed,” meaning that the zebras did not have enough evidence to overturn to initial ruling of Ginwright stepping out of bounds with full control of the ball. You can see in the full video that the sideline referee immediately waived to signal a touchback, and the head referee simply didn’t see enough to overturn—nor truly confirm—that. It’s reasonable to believe that if the sideline referee had ruled the other way—the play not ending with Ginwright out of bounds with the ball but rather Vault on top of it in the endzone—there’s a good chance that Outcome 1 would have held up in a similar fashion.
Still, the best way to ensure a win would have simply been to hang onto the ball, something both Fitzgerald and Thorson acknowledged.
“When you’re in a tight game, any time you turn the ball over at the half yard-line, that’s the difference in the game,” Fitzgerald said.
“I gotta hold on to the ball,” a clearly disappointed Thorson echoed. “I can’t fumble on the one yard-line.”
“We can’t fumble the ball,” Fitzgerald continued. “We take pride in our ball security. To do that costs you a game.”
For Northwestern, it didn’t so much absolutely cost the team the game per se, but rather put a final dagger in the effort to overcome what was a disappointing and uneven performance throughout. Two first downs later, Western Michigan was able to kneel out the clock and secure its first win over a Big Ten team since 2008.
For the Wildcats, who went 5-0 in close games last year, inches separated them from a victory. That, above all else, is why this is one in particular will sting.