- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was a rough weekend all around for the Big Ten, which went 0-3 against ranked teams, 1-3 versus the Pac-12 and only 5-5 against FBS competition. Even some of the winning teams either had major scares (Michigan), looked sluggish (Northwestern) or had the game overshadowed by a different concern (Minnesota).
But, really, all I want to talk about is the Wisconsin-Arizona State ending, aka the Desert Debacle.
As Badgers quarterback Joel Stave ran to his left to center the ball for an upcoming field goal try, he collided into the backside of left guard Ryan Groy and very nearly clipped Groy's heel while attempting to kneel. (Groy didn't even need to be there, as he'd shed a defender and had no one left to block.) Adding to the confusion, Stave quickly bounced up and placed the ball on the 15-yard line as if the pigskin were covered with scorpions. Had he merely Tebowed it and held onto the ball for a couple of seconds, or just handed it to an official, the ensuing chaos probably doesn't occur.
A whistle had blown and the referee, stationed behind the Wisconsin offense, clearly signaled the ball as down. And yet, other officials and players seemed unsure if Stave had actually knelt or whether it was a live, loose ball. Postgame photographic evidence proved he did take a knee, but it took a specific angle on a freeze frame from the hi-def broadcast to remove doubt. Things aren't nearly as clear in full speed live action when you're a 50-year-old-plus referee who's been running around in desert heat for three-plus hours.
But here's the thing: It shouldn't have mattered whether Stave's knee actually ever touched the turf. According to the NCAA rules manual (specifically, Rule 4, Article 2, Section A), the ball is dead if "an official sounds his whistle (even though inadvertently) or otherwise signals the ball dead." Later in Rule 4, the handbook states that the play is dead "when a ball carrier simulates placing his knee on the ground." So Stave should be off the hook here, even though his actions looked odd at the time.
Three Sun Devils players went for the ball, understandably so given the mixed signals, and Anthony Jones laid on it for more than five seconds. Ironically, Arizona State fans booed earlier in the game when they thought Wisconsin's Michael Caputo faked an injury to slow their team's offensive pace by the goal line. Apparently, an even better way to disrupt tempo is to smother the ball like it's a rogue hand grenade, because Jones astonishingly got away with a clear and obvious delay of game infraction.
Even if Stave's kneel-down had gone smoothly, the clock would not have stopped, and the Badgers had no timeouts. Yet, Stave and his teammates wasted precious time by looking to the confused officials instead of rushing into formation for a spike. In fact, Wisconsin players only frantically pointed to the clock when there were two seconds left. The umpire, moving slower than most Arizona retirees, wrongly signaled for the Badgers line to back away, but even that didn't happen until 0:02. The umpire also appeared never to have looked at the referee as the latter was signaling the ball as down.
Without question, the Pac-12 officiating crew displayed a shocking lack of rules knowledge and cohesion. They never huddled together to try and figure out what had happened. The referee, who presumably whistled the play dead and signaled it as so, should have taken charge of the situation. It's disgraceful that two teams could play so hard for 59-plus minutes, only to have officials approach the frenzied final moments so casually (they sure moved fast once they'd decided the Sun Devils had won, however). And if we're going to continually interrupt games for replays, many of which have seemingly little effect on the final outcome, then why isn't there a protocol in place to correct last-second disasters like this on review?
While the officials deserve nearly all the blame, Wisconsin played with fire in trying to get the ball into only slightly better kicking position with the clock dwindling. Badgers coach Gary Andersen said his team practices that specific play for that amount of time, but any seasoned Saturday observer knows that most college teams are notoriously bad at late-game execution. That's because of both inexperienced players and the NCAA 20-hour rule that limits the amount of time coaches can spend on such scenarios. Even when teams do practice for it, they can neither simulate nor predict how quickly -- or, in this case, how interminably -- a given official will clear the pile and spot the ball.
Two more points to consider: First, the bizarre finish absolved Arizona State's Todd Graham of some atrocious clock management and play calling on the Sun Devils' final drive. Graham has yet to impress as a head coach; he twice decided to go for two-point conversions far too early in a back-and-forth game, and it nearly cost his team.
Secondly, Wisconsin's kicking game has been highly suspect for a while now, so there's no guarantee Kyle French makes that field goal, even if it's only from 27 yards out after a delay penalty. But French is 6-for-6 in his career from 30 yards or closer, and he'd made one from 34 earlier Saturday night. It's a shame we'll never know if he could have hit the game winner.
One last question: Why do so many weird things keep cropping up at the end of games for the Badgers, who now have 10 losses by a touchdown or less since the start of 2011? Wisconsin fans can no longer scapegoat Bret Bielema for late-game mismanagement; his wife's schadenfreude was readily apparent when Jen Bielema tweeted "#karma" shortly after the Arizona State fiasco ended.
Take that and rewind it back ...
Team of the Week: Iowa. The Hawkeyes snapped a two-game losing streak against Iowa State, beat a FBS team for the first time since Oct. 13 of last year, and now can feel much better about a potential return to postseason play.
Biggest hangover: Nebraska. For all the obvious reasons. The sky isn't falling in Lincoln, as the Huskers should still be able to win at least eight or nine games. But the sun sure ain't shining, either.
Fun with numbers (via ESPN Stats & Info): Iowa’s Mark Weisman ranks third in the FBS in rushing yards, but his most impressive stat might be his 85 carries. Weisman, who toted it 35 times versus Iowa State, has run the ball 10 times more than anybody else in the nation. Michigan State workhorse Le'Veon Bell had 81 carries through three games last year. ... Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon, meanwhile, leads the country at 12.89 yards per rush. The redshirt sophomore is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt for his career. ... Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld has taken over the Big Ten lead in QBR. Sudfeld ranks seventh nationally with his 91.7 raw score (based on a 100 point scale). Sudfeld also is tied for the national lead in most completions of 20 yards or more, with 19. ... Penn State continues to baffle with its ineptitude on third down, having now converted just four of 34 tries. Only Miami of Ohio (3-for-29) has been worse. ... Bet you wouldn’t have guessed this, but Iowa is leading the league in plays per game, at 83 snaps per contest. The Hawkeyes are tied for 10th nationally in plays per game. Minnesota is running the fewest plays per game in the Big Ten, at 60.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Kenny Guiton -- or Kenny Football, as I’ve taken to calling him, because the real Kenny G is far too lame -- continues to get it done in Braxton Miller's absence. The Ohio State quarterback threw for 276 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 92 yards in the win at Cal. Urban Meyer says he might find ways to play Guiton when Miller is healthy.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): Not a lot of great individual defensive performances in Week 3 (see below), so we’ll go with Iowa’s linebackers. Christian Kirksey, Anthony Hitchens and James Morris combined for 25 tackles, and Morris had a 27-yard interception return. They helped limit Iowa State to just 59 yards rushing.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): It’s time to recognize Purdue’s Cody Webster, who might win the Ray Guy Award if it were handed out today. Webster continued his tremendous season by averaging 41.8 yards per punt and downing three of them inside the 20 versus Notre Dame.
Pointing up (the wrong way): In the first two rewinds of 2013, we pointed out how scoring is up in the Big Ten. In Week 3, that was also true in a negative way. Six Big Ten teams (Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois) gave up at least 31 points, and Michigan nearly joined them (and would have been the sixth of seven to lose if so). Offenses have improved in the league, but let’s face it: Most Big Ten teams still aren’t well-equipped to win shootouts, so the defenses need to play better.
Strangest moment, Part II: Nothing tops the end of the Wisconsin-Arizona State game for absurdity. But more strangeness occurred in the UCLA-Nebraska game, when officials signaled for a made field goal on a kick that was obviously wide right. The call was overturned on replay, but how is that missed in the first place? An Arizona State field goal early against Wisconsin was similarly odd, as it appeared to curve from out, to in, to above the right upright. Officials called it good, but it was hard to tell for sure. Both plays only added fuel to comedian Adam Carolla’s common-sense crusade to raise the darn uprights already.
Did you see? A skywriter spelled out “Go Blue” over Spartan Stadium shortly before Michigan State’s game against Youngstown State on Saturday. Who bothered to do that or why remains unclear, but as Michigan State swimming coach Matt Gianiodis tweeted: “That’s a lot of work for your 3rd biggest rival.” Maybe Michigan fans should have focused more on Akron.