Was Notre Dame’s Offensive Pass Interference the Right Call?

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With 17 seconds left in Saturday’s top-five showdown between undefeated Florida State and undefeated Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish trailed 31-27 and faced a fourth-and-goal play inside the Seminoles’ three-yard line. The play of the game involved quarterback Everett Golson quickly rolling right and looking for receiver Corey Robinson, who had gashed the ‘Noles all night long for eight catches, a team-high 99 yards, and two touchdowns.

To the surprise of more than 80,000 people in Doak Campbell Stadium and millions more watching on television, the player Florida State should have been worried about more than any other on the season’s most critical play got wide open — as in, no one in that whole third of the field open — and caught one of the easiest touchdowns of his career to put the Irish on top.

And then they saw it: The yellow penalty flag that could have an enormous impact on both Florida State and Notre Dame’s 2014 national championship hopes. The officials on the field called the visitors for offensive pass interference, wiping out the go-ahead score and backing the Irish up 15 yards for a do-over. The final pass was nowhere close, and Florida State escaped with a narrow four-point victory.

The controversy, however, was just beginning. Did the officials make the right call? The short answer, although the Notre Dame faithful don’t want to hear it — and Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly will never admit it — is yes. The reason Robinson was so wide open is that the other two receivers in that formation didn’t seem to have any intention of getting open, catching a pass, or really doing anything except illegally blocking downfield.

At the snap, Robinson’s teammates Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise both headed toward Florida State defenders and maneuvered them out of the play with their hands. Basically, the Irish ran a “pick” play. According to the rulebook, what Fuller and Prosise did is only legal if Robinson were to catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage, which he obviously did not (watch the play for yourself here).

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Kelly thinks the officials were wrong. After the game, he told the Associated Press: “We execute that play every day … we do it legally and that’s the way we coach it. We don’t coach illegal plays.” The next day, Kelly hadn’t cooled down at all. If anything, his sentiments were even stronger. “It was pretty clear what happened on the play. Florida State blew the coverage and they got rewarded for it,” he said.

ACC Coordinator of Football Officials Doug Rhoads thinks the officials were right. In a clearly explained video segment, complete with freeze-frame and additional graphics, Rhoads walks viewers through the decisive play and what the rule, in fact, says, which we’ve already summarized here: Robinson needed to catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage. He did not. Case closed.

So what should the rest of us think? When faced with a choice between Rhoads’s explanation and Kelly’s emotion-laden complaint, the evidence seems to be rather lopsided. Just because Kelly said he doesn’t coach illegal plays doesn’t mean his team never commits a penalty — in fact, they have now been assessed for 40 of them on the year. And just because the losing coach isn’t happy about a whistle taking away a touchdown — really, what coach ever is? — doesn’t mean he has a legitimate beef.

If Kelly wanted to wonder out loud whether the officials would have made the same decision in South Bend, he can. (Sure, he might get fined, but he can.) If he wants to argue that the Irish have run the same play before without incident, more power to him. But if he wants to say the call was wrong, he has no real argument. Notre Dame’s receiver got open because his teammates were illegally blocking. Corey Robinson was unguarded because his teammates were setting picks for him. If it were David Robinson on the basketball court, that’s a great play design. Because it’s Robinson’s son on the gridiron, it’s a penalty. This is football, not basketball. Simple as that.

Yes, Brian Kelly, it was pretty clear what happened on the play. Your team broke the rules and got penalized for it. It’s time to move on.