Memphis’ wild punt-return TD vs. Mississippi State counted only because of officials’ mistakes

The key touchdown in Memphis’s two-point victory over Mississippi State on Saturday might not have been the tremendous heads-up play that it was hailed in the moment, but rather a complete officiating failure.

Two rules foulups occurred on Calvin Austin III’s stealth 94-yard punt return that gave Memphis an 11-point lead with 5:36 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Tigers held on to win 31-29.

The clear miss was that Austin was one of two Tigers on the field wearing No. 4. That’s against NCAA rules and the touchdown should have been called back.

Memphis’s official roster lists Austin and defensive lineman Maurice White as No. 4s. White lined up as a rusher on the punt return team.

The second failure was the visible one, but there was also a sliver of gray area. Austin picked up the ball after two Mississippi State players had touched it near the goal line. By rule, the Bulldogs were guilty of illegal touching, but the ball stayed live until it stopped moving.

And then the ball came to rest just before Austin swooped in, grabbed it and took off.

The nearest official (an SEC officiating crew worked the game) had just thrown his beanbag to mark the downing of the ball and was in the midst of signaling the end of the play when Austin made his move. The surprised official backed off.

NCAA Rule 4’s wording on when a ball is declared dead seems to allow for wiggle room. 

The official wording is “when a free kick, scrimmage kick or any other loose ball comes to rest and no player attempts to secure it.” The SEC said in a statement Saturday night that the ball hadn’t yet come to rest when Austin picked it up.

But the conference also said the official’s “inadvertent” signal should have stopped the play. The signal should have been reviewed and the review should have caught the mistake. The ball would then have been placed where it was signaled dead.

The SEC also acknowledged that the officials missed Memphis’ penalty for duplicate uniform numbers.

Had the officials gotten things right, Memphis would have taken possession inside its 10 or Mississippi State would have gained 5 yards and faced a fourth-and-1 near midfield. And then none of the hair-splitting about when the ball stopped moving would have been necessary.

Before the SEC made its statement, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach told reporters he agreed with the call on the field and said he didn’t see anyone signal the play dead. But again, video of the play showed the nearest official beginning to signal before Austin jumped in.

In fact, Leach was more upset that officials seemed to blow a call on the Bulldogs’ onside kick after they had cut the Tigers’ lead to 31-29.

“Don’t even get me started. I’ll have to decide whether I want to spend some money before I get into that too much, Leach was quoted as saying.

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