Utah came out of Pasadena victorious despite late controversial call


— Chris Samuels

Thousands of Utah faithful are still floating on cloud nine after the Utes’ improbable upset of then-No. 8 UCLA in Pasadena on Saturday night. But don’t forget the Utes were just a few feet away from having their hearts broken for a second straight week and starting off 0-2 in Pac-12 play.
A questionable decision by the Pac-12 officiating crew Saturday night gave the Bruins one more chance to snatch the victory from the jaws of defeat. Thankfully for the Utes, the football gods smiled upon them, and the score remained 30-28 in their favor.
It all started after Utah kicker Andy Phillips knocked in a 29-yard field goal to put the Utes back on top after giving up the lead late in the fourth quarter. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley led his offense back onto the field, determined to give his squad one last chance at victory with only 28 seconds left on the game clock.
On the first play of the drive, Hundley completed a pass to receiver Jordan Payton, who scampered out of bounds for a 10-yard gain and a clock stoppage. The next play, Hundley found Payton again for a seven-yard completion, and the shifty receiver once again scurried out of bounds to stop the clock. On second down, Hundley escaped pressure from the Utah defensive line (who had sacked him 10 times prior) and rushed forward for a nine-yard gain as the clock stopped yet again to reset the chains for the first down.
Things were not going well for the underdog Utes.
After spiking the ball on first down, Hundley found Payton one last time as he was shoved out of bounds for a five-yard gain to the Utah 37-yard line. UCLA kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn came on to the field to attempt the 55-yard game winning field goal that would break the hearts of every crimson-clad fan, player or coach in the Rose Bowl.
Here is where things got interesting.
When the ball was snapped for Fairbairn’s field goal attempt, Utah corner back Eric Rowe and defensive back/receiver Dominique Hatfield rushed off of opposite ends of the offensive line to try and swat the kick away from the posts.
One of them succeeded, and that’s where the controversy lies.
Fairbairn’s 55-yard attempt was partially blocked at the line of scrimmage and the ball tumbled harmlessly to the turf well short of its intended destination. Some Utah players rushed onto the field thinking they had just upset the highly ranked Bruins, unaware that the yellow handkerchief had been thrown after the play.
After a quick conference by the officiating crew, a running into the kicker penalty was called on Rowe, and the Bruins were given new life with 0:00 showing on the clock.
The NCAA Football 2013 and 2014 Rules and Interpretations book states, “Running into the kicker or holder is a live-ball foul that occurs when the kicker or holder is displaced from his kicking or holding position, but is not roughed.”
Fairbairn did what most kickers are taught to do — make a slight amount of contact look as egregious and violent as possible. When Rowe came diving at him, Fairbairn went down with slight contact and got the flag he was seeking. But the Utah coaching staff’s biggest argument was that by blocking the kick, there should have been no penalty called.
The rules and interpretations guide states that “a player who makes contact with the kicker or holder after touching the kick is not charged with running into or roughing the kicker.” In addition, “When a player other than one who blocks a scrimmage kick runs into or roughs the kicker or holder, it is a foul.”
The referees had already stated that Rowe was the player called for the penalty. If Rowe blocked the kick, then a penalty should not have been called. So the question then becomes, who blocked the kick? Rowe or Hatfield?
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was obviously not happy with the call or how it was not taken under further review.
“A tipped kick is a reviewable play, and in our estimation the ball was tipped, which means there can be no roughing,” Whittingham said. “It was a little frustrating. We had no timeouts, so we couldn’t burn a timeout to have the replay booth continue to look at it, but they look at every play, so my thought was, ‘Why are we not shutting it down and taking a look just to make sure?’ As soon as I get an explanation, I’m sure I’ll understand why things went down as they did, but it was certainly a critical point in the game and critical to the outcome.”
Despite a heroic performance from junior quarterback Kendal Thompson, who went 10-for-13 passing for 95 yards and a touchdown as well as rushing for 83 yards on 19 carries, the late penalty nearly dashed his chance to lead the Utes to a victory in the Rose Bowl.
“I definitely think it was a questionable call. Me and Dres [Anderson] watched the game when we got home and felt like the ball was tipped, it looked like Eric Rowe got a finger on it,” Thompson said. “You can tell by the flight of the ball and the way the ball died that he definitely got a piece of it, but that’s just how the game goes.”
Fortunately for Thompson and the rest of his teammates, Fairbairn’s 50-yard attempt after the penalty fell wide right of the posts and the Utes escaped the Rose Bowl with a valuable Pac-12 road victory.
After coming up short in so many of these games in the past four years of Pac-12 play, it was refreshing for Utah fans to see the Utes finally snatch a victory out of the hands of an opponent like UCLA and give people in Salt Lake City a reason to think they might do something special in 2014.
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