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David Wharton: Controversial calls happen in college football, but outcomes should stand

Oklahoma State linebacker Chad Whitener sits alone in the Central Michigan end zone while the Central Michigan team celebrates a last second touchdown by wide receiver Corey Willis, resulting in a 30-27 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday. (Brody Schmidt / Associated Press)
By David Wharton Los Angeles Times

No one ever said college football was fair.

That’s not why we watch games on Saturday afternoons. We’re not looking for thoughtful deliberation or due process – we want to see two teams go at it and, in the end, we want a winner.

Which is precisely why the powers that be should not go back and change the ending of Oklahoma State’s controversial loss to Central Michigan.

In case you missed it, the Cowboys appeared to secure a victory when time ran out as they threw the ball away on fourth down. But the officials threw a flag for intentional grounding and mistakenly gave Central Michigan one play on offense.

A Hail Mary pass and a desperate lateral later, Central Michigan grabbed a 30-27 win.

“I guess I need to go and read the rule,” a bewildered Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said afterward. “I don’t even know what to say because I don’t know enough.”

Rule 3, Section 2, Article 3.a.1 states that when an offensive penalty includes loss of down, as the intentional grounding did, the game should not be extended.

The eight officials on the field – from the Mid-American Conference, home to Central Michigan – blew it. So did two Big 12 officials in the replay booth who could have stepped in, citing an “egregious error.”

The mistake went unnoticed until the teams left the field, at which point Oklahoma State was informed that – under Rule 1.1.3.b – the final result could not be altered.

“In my mind, it is incomprehensible that a mistake made after time had expired cannot be corrected,” athletic director Mike Holder said in a statement.

This isn’t the first time a missed call has decided a college game. Last fall, officials allowed Miami’s victory over Duke to stand even though a ball carrier’s knee had clearly touched the ground during an eight-lateral, game-winning kickoff return.

The situation was somewhat different in 2011 when the University of Southern California preserved a narrow win by blocking Utah’s field-goal attempt in the closing seconds. Hours later, Pac-12 officials announced the scoreboard had failed to reflect that the Trojans had returned the block for a touchdown.

The final score was changed, but not the result.

The thing is, sports are supposed to be visceral and immediate. They are joyously unpredictable while, at the same time, offering a degree of resolution that most of us don’t get from the nuances of daily life.

As painful as it might be to see an unjust result, the thrill of college football would be ruined by appeals and bureaucratic do-overs. Who wants their winner to be determined after the fact by a subsection buried deep within a rule book?

Besides, the wild finish in Stillwater, Oklahoma, befit a day that was short on marquee matchups but highly entertaining in its own way.

Tennessee’s victory over rebuilding Virginia Tech felt like something much bigger because it was held inside a converted NASCAR track with a record crowd of almost 157,000 in the stands.

For the second straight week, a player tied the NCAA mark for eight touchdowns in a game. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson did it last week. This time, Arizona State running back Kalen Ballage ran for seven scores and caught a pass for another in his team’s 68-55 win over Texas Tech.

In Tuscaloosa, an otherwise dull Alabama-Western Kentucky game was enlivened by coach Nick Saban going ballistic over his team’s sluggish performance, screaming at offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin on the sideline.

“There are no arguments,” Saban said. “Those are called ass-chewings.”

The Crimson Tide remained entrenched at No. 1 in this week’s Associated Press media poll, their ranking unharmed by a less-than-impressive 38-10 win. The same could not be said for Oklahoma State.

Voters dropped the formerly No. 22 Cowboys out of the Top 25 on Sunday, though that situation – unlike Saturday’s outcome – might be rectified down the road.

Gone are the days of the Bowl Championship Series when computer algorithms had no code for an official’s bumble. The humans on the selection committee for the College Football Playoff have the reasoning and leeway to make allowances for what happened.

“The goal is still attainable,” Oklahoma State safety Jordan Sterns said after the game. “We just have to bounce back.”

Late Sunday afternoon, the MAC punished the eight officials who were on the field, suspending them for two games. The Big 12 handed down a similar punishment for its two officials in the replay booth, adding that they will not be permitted to work a bowl game in the postseason.

None of that changed the winner and loser of the game. Nor should it have.