Under Review: Big Ten tries instant replay to avoid game-changing mistakes

Tania Ganguli

n a cold October night in 2002 a Northwestern freshman from Columbus, Ohio, scored his first collegiate touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes he had grown up admiring.

With more than a million people watching across the nation, Mark Philmore squeezed between two scarlet and gray clad defensive backs, caught a 21-yard pass and touched his feet down in the end zone before falling out of bounds. His touchdown gave the Wildcats a 12-6 lead over the eventual undefeated national champions.

Or so he thought.

“I could have sworn I had my first career touchdown,” Philmore said. “It hurt when they said it was incomplete.”

The officials ruled that Philmore was juggling the ball as he fell out of bounds. But the call was controversial because television replays suggested that Philmore had control.

“I saw the film,” Philmore said. “A couple of my friends had the TV copy, and I looked at that I don’t know how many times.

“I had it.”

But the officials could only rely on what they saw on the field.

This year, as Ohio State returns to Evanston for another nationally televised night game, that process has changed. Big Ten officials have a new toy that no other NCAA officials have ever had — instant replay.

It doesn’t guarantee that every wrong call will be fixed. Nor does it promise every close call will be reviewed.

The goal is to cut down on big, game-changing mistakes — at least the ones that are obvious on television — with the help of a technical advisor and TiVo. After the season, the Big Ten and the NCAA hope they’ll know just how beneficial their version of instant replay was this year.

It may be just an experiment, but if it had happened two years ago at least one thing would’ve been different. Someone other than Philmore would have pored over the television replay of the touchdown that wasn’t.

Someone with the power to give it back.

Delay of game

There was nothing instant about the replay process in its debut on Sept. 4, 2004. It had taken 10 years for the Big Ten to put together and enact a plan for instant replay, and the first ever reviews in college football seemed to take almost as long.

In Wisconsin’s game against Central Florida, Badgers’ defensive back Dontez Sanders picked up a fumble and returned it to the end zone. Meanwhile, the technical advisor for the game watched the television broadcast from the press box and examined the fumble recovery through TiVo. Once he realized there was cause for review, he hit a button that paged four officials and the timer, notifying them to stop play.

As the referee picked up a phone on the sideline to talk to the technical adviser, television commentators discussed what they could be reviewing. Was it actually a fumble? Was there a penalty?

The advisor decided Sanders’ knee was down and the referee returned the ball to the spot where the defensive back had caught it.

On the next play, Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis ran up the sideline for 22 yards, but play was stopped to see where he stepped out of bounds. After a five-minute wait, the initial decision backed up the ball 13 yards. But when the broadcast showed a different angle, the adviser corrected his call and Davis lost just one yard.

That week the Big Ten issued a memo telling its advisors to use “common sense” while choosing which plays to review.

“It was quite a long delay for really a meaningless call, and it did affect the flow of the game,” Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. “The league and the officials and those that are viewing are learning from it.”

Initially the plan was for each replay to take one minute and for reviews to be saved for game-changing calls.

The rules for reviewing calls are similar to NFL rules. Plays ruled by sidelines, the goal line, the end zone and the end line, forward passes, catches, runners ruled not down by contact, forward progress with respect to first downs, number of players on the field and touching a kick are eligible for review.

“If the call is incorrect, instant replay will be the fairest way for us to make sure the better team wins that day, ” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said.

Conference officials compiled a study during the 2002 season to see how replay would likely affect the game. After looking at 10,800 plays in 68 games, Big Ten Supervisor of Officials Dave Parry said the league found that only one of every three games would have involved a replay. Of the reviewable calls, 54 percent would have been overturned.

Then in March of 2003, the Big Ten held a summit to study the conference’s officiating with head coaches and athletic directors. At that summit, the league created a proposal to present to the NCAA.

“Virtually everybody was for it,” Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. “I think it was 11-0 with the coaches.”

The recommendation was completed in May of last year and presented to the NCAA rules committee, which approved it later that month.

Every conference game this season will have instant replay. All but one Big Ten game is scheduled for television this season and the conference will create a television production for that game so it can use instant replay.

At the end of the season, officials will report their findings to the Big Ten and the conference will report to the NCAA.

Working the system

When Brett Basanez took a blind faith dive towards the end zone against Minnesota last Saturday, the ball came loose as a defender smashed into his shoulder near the end zone. Before anyone could question whether or not the ball crossed the plane of the goal line, the kick team was on the field and kicked the extra point.

Like in the NFL, replays cannot be done after the next snap. And the Wildcats didn’t look like they wanted to take any chances.

“I don’t think we hurried out there to kick it (on Saturday),” NU kicker Brian Huffman said. “But I know the offense and defense talked about it.”

The college instant replay system doesn’t involve challenges like the NFL system, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t strategy involved. Walker and other coaches, like Minnesota’s Glen Mason, dismissed the idea of hurrying the offense to prevent a review.

“There’re a lot of aspects of the game (to deal with) without trying to figure out what the replay guy’s doing and what the television guy is doing,” Mason said. “Next thing you know we’re going to have televisions on the sidelines to try and figure out what should be reviewed.”

The added responsibility of making decisions is one that several coaches said they could do without. It’s why the Big Ten coaches preferred a third party decide which calls to review.

While offenses might hurry their next play to ensure that the technical adviser can’t look at a close call that went their way, coaches can use timeouts to give the technical adviser time to review calls that went against them.

That’s what Walker did earlier in the game against Minnesota after Basanez threw a controversial interception.

“I was right in line with the ball and the cornerback, and I was certain it one-hopped,” Walker said.

The play was not reviewed, but Basanez’s reaction shows just how removed the players are from the whole process. They rarely ever think about the existence of replay unless it directly affects them. Basanez didn’t even realize the interception wasn’t reviewed.

“I guess now that I think about it, I’m mad they didn’t (review it),” Basanez said. “If you let it affect you then it’s going to affect your game a lot.”

Staying ‘off the news’

The problem with Basanez’s interception was that there wasn’t a clear angle on television. That meant that those watching on television wouldn’t see it as an obviously wrong call.

“We hope we can correct those obvious, egregious plays (and keep them) off the news at 10:00 that night,” Parry said.

Not only that, but the officials want to make sure that the calls they get right are reviewed
so the teams know they were fair calls. Parry cited a field goal kicked by Ohio State against Purdue last year. He said although most people thought the clock had expired before the snap, the officials had correctly given Ohio State another play.

But if a play isn’t captured fully on television, it can’t be questioned on the news. The limitations of TiVo also mean that the play will not be reviewed if the technical adviser doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

From a public relations standpoint it seems perfect, but some say a system so dependent on television coverage is inherently flawed.

Although Walker was sure Basanez’s interception hit the ground before a defender caught it, he said that it might not have been clear from the TV angle.

“The NFL spends billions of dollars on their system and it isn’t perfect,” Walker said.

The Big Ten spends $100,000 on its program. Cost was a major concern the NCAA had before authorizing the experiment and a condition of the authorization. Time was too, but that’s an aspect they will review at the end of the season.

The average Big Ten game lasted three hours and 13 minutes. NU’s contest against Minnesota, which featured last weekend’s only overturned call, was only three hours and five minutes long.

The reversed call went against Minnesota and stopped the game for about four minutes — three minutes longer than the desired time.

The other stoppage was in Michigan’s game against Iowa, but that call was not overturned.

“This system is between the NFL system and nothing,” NU offensive lineman Ikechuku Ndukwe said. “I’d rather have something than nothing.”

Decision pending

The Big Ten is the only conference using replay, but the rest of the country is paying attention this year.

“Other conferences around the country are watching us and watching us carefully,” Parry said. “We’re guessing that they’d like it to be successful, because if it is they’ll probably go to the rules committee and see if it can be an option (for them).”

Anything the NCAA approves would have to pass with Division III schools. A system that relies heavily on television coverage would be difficult to implement in Division III, where few game are televised.

More than half the season remains and neither the Big Ten nor the NCAA will know until then if instant replay was successful. None of the questions have been fully answered yet and no decision will be made until well after the end of the season.

Ty Halpin, a liaison to the NCAA rules committee, said he foresees a system for football like the system used in college basketball.

“If the game’s on TV they can use a court-side monitor to correct errors,” Halpin said. “That could be the type of system that we might use.”

Like most players, Philmore didn’t have much to say about the logistics and he laughed last week while remembering that controversial call from two years ago. But the sting clearly is still with him as the junior still hasn’t scored a touchdown.

“Maybe it’s karma,” he said.

For players and coaches who often are at the mercy of officials’ incomplete views, a method of review is a breath of fresh air.

“All of us agree that if it just gets one call that might have been missed or changed, it’s a positive,” Walker said.

Just ask Philmore.

Reach Tania Ganguli at [email protected].