At 5:51 in the Alabama LSU game highlight reel above, Michael Williams makes a catch on the goal line. It’s the 4th quarter with 11:11 to go and the game is tied 6-6. Momentum is on Bama’s side after a couple of big offensive plays: an 18 yard McCarron-to-Maze pass to the Bama 45 for a first down, and a Trent Richardson rush for 24 yards to the 28 for a first down.
At 5:31 in the reel above, Marquis Maze is in the wildcat. DJ Fluker lines up on line of scrimmage on the left side and TE Michael Williams lines up on the right beside RG Anthony Steen. At the snap Williams immediately heads downfield, leaving an opening for two LSU defenders to bring pressure on Maze. Steen moves back to contain one of the pass rushers, but the other gets through. With a defender in his face, Maze floats a pass 27 yards to Williams, who is covered man-to-man by LSU S Eric Reid. 6’6” Williams jumps up and firmly catches the ball. 6’2” Reid is short on the jump and falls down with Williams, then scuffles for the ball after Williams is on the ground.
A series of photos clearly shows Williams with control of the ball (from TideSports, al.com, and the Chris Vernon Show), or at the very least simultaneous possession.
After the end of the play, LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu (who should have been ejected for a later clothesline hit on Dre Kirkpatrick that caused a concussion) stands over the duo waving off Bama possession. The referee on the goal line, without a clear view of the play, clearly looks at the LSU players and then rules interception. Reid then stands up with the ball.
An excellent article by College Football News’ Matt Zemek (@MattZemek_CFN) explains why Michael Williams deserved to be credited with a legal catch. He discusses the different interpretations of what happened on the play, and the NCAA rulebook on “control of the ball” and “simultaneous possession” with examples from other games.
In LSU-Alabama, Reid gained full possession while already on the ground; this was clearly not a situation in which Reid stripped Williams while standing up. The fact that Reid was already lying on the ground when he wrested the ball from Williams means that if Williams had control of the ball while also lying on the ground (in other words, after his butt hit the ground), the simultaneous possession rule applies.
Here’s where things get really interesting. The play is sent for review to replay official Ben Oldham.
Ben Oldham is the same official who as a referee was suspended in December 1999 for an almost identical bad call on the 1 yard line against Georgia. The game with Georgia Tech was tied, and Tech went on the win the game by 3 points in overtime. The ruling was a fumble when the ball clearly popped out after the Georgia player hit the ground. The SEC supervisor of football officials took the unusual step of suspending the entire crew and reports were never confirmed that the officials were fired.
In January 2000, it was announced Oldham had “resigned” from officiating and took a position as Georgetown’s Athletics Director until 2002.
He pops back up on the officiating radar in December 2008 as a replay official in the Rose Bowl featuring Penn State and Southern Cal.
In the Alabama LSU game, Ben Oldham’s review confirms the ruling on the field. LSU is credited with an interception and the Tide is robbed of its chance to punch in a score at the goal line.
The SEC office then goes on to add insult to injury by naming Eric Reid the defensive player of the week for the “interception”. Whether one disagrees or agrees with the call on that play, the SEC office was wrong to publicly flaunt such a questionable on-field ruling – one which is widely being hailed outside the SEC as a monstrously bad call.
Of course, allowing Tom Ritter’s crew to officiate the game doesn’t help the SEC look any better.
Exit question: How does a disgraced SEC referee end up as a replay official in a key conference game with national implications?
More Alabama updates on Twitter at @LivingCrimson. Comments always welcome.
UPDATED Wed., 11/9/11, with additional picture provided from the comment section. The picture shows Williams about to hit the ground with his hands still in possession of the ball and Reid with one hand on the ball. Simultaneous possession goes to the benefit of the offensive player. At no point did Reid have sole possession of the ball before Williams hit the ground.