King Kaufman's Sports Daily

If a player fumbles and no ref calls it, has he really fumbled? And other deep bowl-game thoughts.


Salon Staff
January 3, 2006 9:15PM (UTC)

The strangest play I saw on Monday didn't even happen, officially. That seemed somehow appropriate on a New Year's Day-plus-one that featured six bowl games played more or less for the heck of it.

Here's what happened. In the Fiesta Bowl, with Notre Dame down 21-13 late in the third quarter, safety Tom Zbikowski picked up an apparent fumble by Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio State and raced 89 yards for a touchdown to make it a two-point game pending the conversion.

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But the play was called back for a holding penalty on the return, and then the replay official reversed the whole thing, ruling that Gonzalez had never caught the pass in the first place. It was incomplete, not a fumble. So that touchdown really, really didn't count.

Which is too bad because Zbikowski had fumbled on the 1-yard line and the officials had missed it. How I would have loved to watch Ohio State fans go crazy in the wake of a Notre Dame comeback victory, the key play of which was a touchdown that shouldn't have been. Instead Ohio State kicked a field goal on the next play and went on to a relatively easy 34-20 win.

Nothing against Ohio State fans. I'd have enjoyed seeing fans go crazy regardless of the teams involved. I just love seeing fans get apoplectic over things like that.

Zbikowski, all alone as he completed his run, humbly dropped the ball as he crossed the goal line. Only he clearly dropped it a full step before scoring.

As I write this I'm looking at a paused image on my TV. Zbikowski's left foot is on the ground at the 1, his right foot is in midstep, level with his left, and he's headed at about a 45-degree angle to the right, starting the process of circling around to face the field after scoring. The ball, which he dropped, rather than spiking, is out of his hand, having fallen to about midthigh, a foot or so below his left hand.

When I press play, the ball and Zbikowski's right foot hit the turf at the same time, about a yard into the end zone. There are physics going on there that make it pretty much impossible for him to have crossed the line before dropping the ball.

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I've seen prematurely celebrating players fumble the ball shy of the end zone -- most famously Leon Lett of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1992-season Super Bowl -- but I don't think I've ever seen a player drop the ball as though he'd scored when he hadn't yet scored.

The second strangest play I saw happened earlier in the same game, and no the Fiesta Bowl wasn't the only game I watched Monday. It was the only game I was really interested in, two very powerful, very big-time teams with exciting offenses. But I did watch Georgia vs. West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, moved from New Orleans to Atlanta this year because of Hurricane Katrina damage, out of a sense of professional duty.

You'll forgive me, I hope, for skipping most of the day's other four games, though I did catch Virginia Tech's fourth-quarter rally over Louisville in the Gator Bowl. Here's my peerless commentary on that: Whoa, that was a fast comeback.

I've been saving up gems like that for a month.

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Too bad for me I missed the evidently exciting finish of the Cotton Bowl, Alabama beating Texas Tech on a field goal at the gun -- not that a field goal can ever be exciting, but the people in red seemed to enjoy that one. I'm a creature of the Bowl Championship Series now.

With the BCS making it explicit that only the National Championship Game means anything, I can't figure out why I'm supposed to be interested in any of the other bowl games unless my favorite team is playing. Even the other three BCS games seem like exhibitions.

The system has stripped those "major" bowls of the heft and charisma they once had. It used to mean a lot to win, say, the Sugar Bowl, even if the top two teams in the polls were playing elsewhere, just because it was the Sugar Bowl. The SEC champ was always there, for one thing. Each year's game was part of a long, storied tradition that had its own meaning.

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Now, in the three out of four years when it isn't the championship game, the Sugar Bowl may as well be the Motor City Bowl. It just has better teams.

As it happens, the Sugar Bowl was a dandy Monday, with West Virginia jumping out to a stunning 28-0 lead over the favored Bulldogs in what was essentially a home game for the Bulldogs, then Georgia snarling back to make it a game but ultimately falling short, 38-35. Then again, the Motor City Bowl was pretty good this year too.

Having said all that -- and stay tuned, folks, because I'm going to get to that second strange play in a minute here -- I want to make it clear that I'm not whining about how there are too many bowl games.

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I've gotten tired of hearing all the moaning that goes on every December about how there are too many bowl games and too many 6-5 teams playing in bowl games, how the expansion of the bowl season has cheapened everything. Everyone relax.

Do what I do and, probably, what you already do: If you're not interested in a bowl game, ignore it. How does it cheapen anything for anybody if a few thousand Kansas Jayhawks fans drive down to Fort Worth for a football game? It's fun for the players, fun for the fans, some money is made. What's wrong?

So OK, here's the second strangest play I saw Monday. In the second quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, with Ohio State leading 14-7, Santonio Holmes hauled in a bomb from Troy Smith at the Notre Dame 45 and went in for an 85-yard touchdown, the longest in Fiesta Bowl history. He raised his index finger at the 10-yard line and ran the last few steps with his arm up.

Holmes was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a "celebration" penalty. Can't have these kids celebrating. They're professionals after all, and should act like it.

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No, wait a second.

Anyway, ABC commentators Brent Musburger and Gary Danielson talked about it as though Holmes had mooned the defensive backs and peed on the leprechaun's leg. It was ridiculous. The guy had just scored a ridiculous touchdown in a BCS bowl game, and he'd stuck one finger in the air, and not his middle finger.

Here's what made that such a strange play: A few hours later, West Virginia scored on the first possession of the Sugar Bowl against Georgia. Tailback Steve Slaton went 52 yards for a touchdown on a draw play. As Slaton raced down the left side of the field, receiver Darius Reynaud ran along about three yards behind him, ready to block anyone who might have an angle on Slaton.

With Slaton at about the 13 and Reynaud the 16, Reynaud raised one fist in celebration. No flags.

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So let me get this straight. It's unsportsmanlike conduct if you raise a hand in celebration, if you have the ball, but not if you're just next to the guy with the ball? It's not raising your hand that's unsportsmanlike. It's having the ball in your other hand.

I guess I just don't understand the complexities of football.

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