When the Arizona Wildcats took the field Saturday night, they already had seen and heard all about the day’s most controversial play in college football.
Right before the game, coach Mike Stoops had warned them: Don’t do anything to give the officials the slightest thought about calling an excessive celebration penalty after a touchdown.
So what happens?
Arizona gets called for an excessive celebration penalty after a touchdown.
In Arizona’s case, receiver Delashaun Dean probably just stuck his toe over the excessive line. He caught a touchdown pass against Toledo and then strutted with the ball for a few seconds, which is in violation of Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1 of the NCAA football rule book:
“After a score or any other play, the player in possession immediately must return the ball to an official or leave it near the dead-ball spot.”
The rule’s intention is admirable, but its starkness leaves much to be desired.
It’s madness when Washington quarterback Jake Locker, after tumbling into the end zone with 2 seconds left against BYU, gets up and reflexively flings the ball into the air before chest pumping a teammate . . . and gets flagged for it.
He didn’t taunt. He didn’t slash his finger over his throat. He didn’t jump into the stands.
He neither broke out in a Riverdance, nor pulled a Sharpie from his sock and signed the football right there in the end zone.
He just got up, reacted on instinct and – whoopee! – threw the ball high into the air.
Which would have been a great exuberant moment except for Rule 9, Section 2, Article 1, which details proper player conduct and prohibits “throwing the ball high into the air.”
The 15-yard penalty meant Washington, instead of being able to kick the nearly automatic game-tying extra point, had to make the try from 35 yards.
In case you missed it, the Cougars blocked it – good for them for making a play – but it’s also reasonable to assume that the extra distance contributed to a lower trajectory on the kick.
The immediate reaction to the penalty was that those game officials were not only bad enough to be Pac-10 refs, they were bad enough to be Pac-10 basketball refs.
It’s obvious Locker did nothing wrong.
But bad news for the reactionaries: The refs – technically – did nothing wrong, either.
What are they there for, if not to apply the rule book?
Washington coach Ty Willingham, ever pragmatic, said of the penalty: “It’s unfortunate, but it’s one that they almost have to call.”
That leaves only the rule itself that can be wrong.
How about a 5-yard penalty for violating the letter of the rule, and a 15-yard penalty for violating the letter and the spirit of the rule?
If game officials have to make that judgment, so be it.
Until then, beware and be boring.
“I didn’t do anything,” Dean said of the penalty after his touchdown. “I was just having fun with my teammates.”
Maybe, maybe not . . . but given Arizona’s nearly unprecedented scoring rate through two games, this could become an issue for the Wildcats, who have scored 15 touchdowns – just one less, for example, than they scored in eight conference games in 2004, Stoops’ first season.
“The way officials are calling things these days, you can’t really do anything,” said offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes.
“Just hand the ball to the official, celebrate with your teammates and get over to the sideline.”
Yeah. None of that spontaneous happiness. That could be baaaaad.
“I don’t know how you put your arms around it,” Stoops said about eliminating truly excessive celebration while maintaining impulsive fun.
“You just want the kids to celebrate with their teammates. That’s what you hope they do. That what we try to coach our kids to do.”
UA senior receiver Mike Thomas has scored 23 touchdowns at Arizona. He admits he is tempted to break out some moves in the end zone, but adds, “it’s not about that.”
“It’s about the team,” he said. “We don’t want to get any flags and tick off Coach. We just keep it in the heart, you know what I’m saying?”
Yeah. Just keep it low key. Hope your natural reactions don’t get the best of you.
“Just act like you’ve been there,” he said.