FARGO — It was obvious to everybody but the replay official, apparently. Why it was not obvious to him will likely remain one of life's great mysteries, like why McDonald's shakes don't melt in hot weather.
We're probably better off not knowing the answer to the latter. But the obliviousness of the replay official at the North Dakota State-Northern Iowa football game? That we'd all like to know.
Why was Northern Iowa's Bennie Sapp III not called for targeting when he shot head-first into the side of North Dakota State receiver Christian Watson's head in Saturday's 34-20 Bison victory, spinning Watson like a helicopter blade to the Fargodome turf?
The Missouri Valley Football Conference, which employs the officials, is not going to answer that question. The league on Monday, though, did admit the officials on the field and replay official Pete Bobber blew the call. Coordinator of officials Bill Carollo called Bison head coach Matt Entz to let him know.
Not targeting on the field, nor after review. pic.twitter.com/HasrlGIQnb— Mike McFeely (@McFeely_Inforum) October 10, 2021
"They were inaccurate. The conference said the call that was made on the field was wrong. But there's nothing I can do about it right now. Ifs and buts. It is what it is," Entz said when I asked about the play at his weekly press conference.
NBC's Terry McAulay, a former NFL official who is the network's rules expert for Sunday Night Football and Notre Dame games, was much less diplomatic Monday morning when I sent him a video clip of the play and asked for a critique.
"This is a stunning error by the replay official," McAulay told me.
Which is exactly the conclusion 18,536 fans at the dome and a statewide television audience reached when the play happened late in the first quarter.
On second-and-11 from the UNI 49, Bison quarterback Quincy Patterson II hit Watson over the middle with a pass. Watson caught it at the Panthers' 21 and ran to the 11, where he was tackled by a pair of UNI defenders. As Watson was going down, Sapp rocketed in and hit the Bison receiver in the side of the head with his helmet.
Watson, whose head was going forward toward the UNI end zone, was spun around almost 180 degrees and he landed on the turf with his head facing the opposite end zone.
The officials on the field didn't throw a flag. After the play was reviewed by Bobber, referee Matt Packowski announced that the call on the field was confirmed because "the defender did not use the crown of his helmet."
"The announcement was the contact was not with the crown of the helmet. That is incorrect," McAulay said.
College rules say players can't target and make "forcible contact against an opponent with the crown of his helmet." Two of the indicators of targeting include "leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area" and "lowering the head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet."
Sapp's tackle clearly met the criteria of the rules.
"The defender takes aim for the purpose of attacking. He lowers his head and leads with the crown of the helmet. And he makes forcible contact using the crown of the helmet to an opponent. The crown is defined to be any part of the helmet above the face mask," McAulay said. "It’s not remotely close to not being a targeting foul."
Sapp should've been immediately ejected from the game, as per college rules.
Thankfully, it appears neither Watson nor Sapp were injured on the play. Watson went through concussion protocol on the sidelines after the play, but later returned to action. Sapp played the rest of the game.
Despite Entz's "it is what it is" demeanor when asked about the call after the game and at Monday's press gathering, he was hot on the field. He pleaded his case strongly to the officials.
- Kolpack: Electrifying things happen for the Bison when Watson gets the (expletive) ball
- McFeely: You've heard of the Patton tank? Bison have Patterson tank
- Bison notebook: Price was right for NDSU on key punt return
The angle here isn't the competitive impact Sapp's ejection might've had in the game. What's done is done. The Bison won. No, the issue is player safety. Sapp's hit was a dangerous play and easily could've resulted in serious injury to Watson and himself. For the officials on the field and the replay official to so blatantly miss an obvious call is a dereliction of duty.
In a statement to The Forum, Carollo said: “The league’s officiating consortium has an extensive training and review program. Plays of this nature are reviewed by staff in the Command Center in Chicago, both during games and afterward. Staff communicates the results of those reviews to the head coach and also addresses plays of that nature with the crew.”
I think back to NDSU's 2019 playoff game at the dome against Nicholls. The Colonels lost starting cornerback Darren Evans late in the first half when he was called for targeting on a tackle of Bison receiver Jimmy Kepouros. There was no flag thrown on the field, but a booth review determined Evans lowered his head and used the crown of his helmet while tackling Kepouros. On that play, both players lowered their heads and Kepouros' helmet actually went into the side of Evans' head.
Evans was ejected anyway. It was a much sketchier targeting call, one that baffled even the Bison partisans in attendance.
Missouri Valley Football Conference has told NDSU that officials missed this targeting call. @SNFRules tells me, “This is a stunning error by the replay official.” Column coming soon to @inforum. pic.twitter.com/7TxKX9mTax— Mike McFeely (@McFeely_Inforum) October 11, 2021
The call against Nicholls wasn't in the ballpark of Saturday's non-call. The Valley should be embarrassed the obvious targeting was missed on replay, which included all of the angles (at least three) shown on WDAY-TV's broadcast.
Officials are human and miss calls in every game. That's part of the bargain of sports and in some cases part of the charm and history of games. But there's no charm when officials miss calls on dangerous plays, when there's no penalty for smacking an opponent in the head in what could easily lead to a concussion or more serious injuries.
What's the purpose of replay officials if they can't get the call correct when provided with multiple angles that clearly show a player lowering his helmet and hitting another player in the head? That's the question that should be bouncing around the Valley offices this week.