The Pac-12’s statement Sunday evening about a momentous officiating gaffe in Berkeley provided some insight into what happened but missed the mark with regard to why and how it happened.
Why was Washington State called for, and assessed, an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty that was committed by Cal?
How did the gaffe, which resulted in a 57-yard mistake in field position, go unnoticed by officials on the field, in the replay booth and in the command center in San Francisco?
Without the why or the how, the Pac-12 statement intended to provide transparency fell short.
Worry not: The Hotline has cracked the case.
It’s not a satisfying answer for Washington State, or for anyone frustrated with Pac-12 officiating.
But it solves the mystery.
In the headline of its statement, the Pac-12 used the phrase “mechanics error” to describe the breakdown.
Disregard that. It’s misleading.
Referee Matt Richards, whFo called and assessed the penalty, had a mental lapse.
He had a titanic brain fart.
It’s as simple and painful (for the Cougars) as that.
It was so simple, in fact, that the conference had no way to prevent Richards from making the error and no way to correct the situation before it was too late — before the next play was run and the gaffe became permanent.
The Hotline has reviewed multiple replays of the sequence over the past 48 hours, allowing us to spot the shortcomings in the conference’s statement and ultimately discover the crucial how and why.
Richards, as the referee, was positioned in the end zone behind Washington State returner Travell Harris on a kickoff with approximately 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.
He correctly spotted the hands-to-the-face infraction committed by Cal’s Ben Moos (uniform No. 15) on Washington State’s Halid Djibril (No. 42) — a sequence that began at the 19 yard-line and culminated at the 16.
Then Richards, from behind the play, threw his flag and alerted his crew.
He then followed routine: He flipped on his mic, addressed the crowd and announced the penalty “on the receiving team number 15.”
Harris had returned the punt to the 50, but the infraction “on the receiving team” was committed at the 16.
Account for half the distance to the goal-line, and the ball was spotted at the eight.
Then the Cougars threw a short pass on first down … and Richards realized his mistake.
The wires had gotten crossed in his brain: He had believed Cal was the receiving team.
And in those few seconds, the damage was done.
Because the ball had been snapped for the ensuing play, there was no going back … no way to correct what had been a 57-yard mistake.
Washington State, which trailed 20-11, should have started its drive at Cal’s 35 yard-line: The kick return to the 50, plus 15 yards for the penalty.
How do we know Richards had a mental lapse — that it was human error, not a “mechanics error”?
The Hotline was able to review footage of the sequence that we hadn’t previously seen.
Listen carefully to Richards as he announces the penalty to the crowd.
At the end of his explanation is this:
“First down, Cal.”
In the moment, you think nothing of it. You assume he misspoke, as referees sometimes do.
But when added to the entirety of the sequence, the mystery is solved:
From the moment Richards spotted the hands-to-the-face, he had it stuck in his head that Cal was the receiving team.
And from his perspective, everything was executed properly:
He saw the infraction committed by a Cal player, he announced the penalty “on the receiving team,” and he walked off the yardage “on the receiving team.”
A titanic — and unstoppable — brain fart.
Why didn’t members of the officiating crew correct Richards?
Because he saw the penalty — it was his call.
Wires crossed in his head, he told the crew that No. 15 “on the receiving team” had committed the penalty, and they assumed that meant WSU.
When Richards walked off the yardage, the other officials had no reason to think he was doing so in error.
None of them looked around for No. 15 on the receiving team, because officials don’t typically check uniform numbers.
They count bodies to make sure each team has 11 on the field, but they don’t check numbers.
Had they looked, the crew would have realized No. 15 on the receiving team, a freshman named Armauni Archie, was on the WSU sideline during the kickoff.
Richards not only had assessed a penalty on the wrong team but on a player who wasn’t in the game.
Why didn’t the replay booth or the command center in San Francisco get involved?
Because illegal hands-to-the-face, like holding, isn’t a reviewable play.
Reviewable plays involve the boundary, the goal-line, control of the ball, targeting, etc.
As Richards was processing, explaining and assessing the penalty, the replay booth and command center were focused on Harris, the returner:
At the end of his run, the ball popped loose — there was the potential for a fumble.
Because the identification of the penalty originated with Richards, there was no way for officials on the field or in the booth to know the wires had crossed in his brain … that he had flipped the kicking and receiving teams.
They had no reason to assume a mistake had been made.
And WSU lost 57 yards.
According to the conference statement Sunday evening, Richards informed the Cougars’ sideline of the mistake “after the next play was run.”
The Hotline asked Mike Leach on a teleconference Monday about the timing of events, and Leach said he was told of the mistake “later in the quarter.”
(Not wanting to get fined, Leach was vague on the topic.)
In contrast to corrective statements issued earlier this season, the conference did not provide an accompanying video explanation with narration by David Coleman, the vice president of officiating.
The reason, we suspect, is that Richards got the call right (hands to the face by No. 15).
There was nothing to show.
There is no section in the rulebook for referees confusing the kicking team with the receiving team.
The description of the mistake by the conference — a “mechanics error” — was misleading. It made clarity elusive in a statement intended to provide transparency.
In reality, it was human error, a giant mental lapse.
Why not call it an error in judgment?
The statement also explained the consequences:
Richards has been suspended for one game; the crew has been “downgraded,” which (we assume) could undermine their postseason assignments.
Is one game enough for Richards?
(We’re sympathetic. Washington State fans probably feels differently, and understandably so.)
There is precedent, as those who follow WSU might recall.
In 2015, the Cougars were awarded an extra down against Arizona State.
That extra down, in the red zone, resulted in a touchdown for WSU in what became a 38-24 victory.
The next day, the conference issued a statement, suspended the line judge and downgraded the crew.
And so it goes.