SEC crew blew punt return call. 1994 game between Saints-Rams was bad, too| Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

It was mea culpa Monday for the Southeastern Conference.

The league office issued an official statement via Twitter that its officiating crew in the Mississippi State at Memphis football game last Saturday made numerous mistakes on the 94-yard, fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown by Memphis’ Calvin Austin. Memphis would go on to win, 31-29.

On the play in question, the Bulldogs appeared to have to downed the ball inside the Memphis 10-yard line with less than five minutes remaining and trailing 21-17. In fact, the back official threw down his marker and signaled the play dead when Austin scooped up the ball at the 6 and returned it 94 yards for a touchdown that was allowed.

To his credit, Mississippi State coach Mike Leach said he and his staff coach their team to play to the whistle.

Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach lectures his players before the start of the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against Louisiana Tech in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Mississippi State won 35-34. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

"I mean, the ball's live," Leach said after the game. "Just because you touch it, they usually whistle it. You know. We've got to pick it up and hand it to the ref."

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The longest punt return in NFL history

The play reminded me of a similar return that occurred during Week 8 of the 1994 NFL season when the Saints hosted the Los Angeles Rams. The main storyline entering the game was New Orleans quarterback Jim Everett facing his former team.

New Orleans led 37-27 with about four minutes left. Back in those days, the print media was allowed to watch the closing minutes of an NFL game from the field, giving it quicker postgame access to locker rooms and press conferences. It was from the corner of one of the Superdome end zones that many of us covering the game witnessed one of the most bizarre plays in NFL history.

Saints punter Tommy Barnhart booted the ball into the end zone for what would normally be an easy touchback. However, like many punters, Barnhart was able to put enough backspin on an oblong ball to make it bounce either sideways or backward. In this case, the ball hit about a yard from going out of the back of the end zone and bounced back toward the goal line.

Everyone gave up on the play but the Rams’ Robert Bailey. As the Saints were headed to the near sideline and the Rams’ offense was jogging onto the field to take possession at their 20, Bailey scooped up the ball and ran alongside the Rams’ sideline. He dodged his oncoming teammates and scored on a 103-yard punt return that to this day is the longest in NFL history. The only thing missing was Stanford’s trombone player.

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Saints coach Jim Mora was incredulous.

“I ain’t seen many like that,” he said after the game.

More instances of suspect officiating

Referee Johnny Grier admitted postgame that the officials might’ve missed an illegal participation penalty on the play. You think?

In all, the Saints and Rams combined for 688 yards in kickoff and punt returns, and that did not count Toby Wright’s 98-yard fumble return for the Rams.

Fortunately for Mora’s health, New Orleans prevailed, 37-34, and the NFL changed its punt rules afterward that any punt that hits in the end zone is immediately whistled dead for a touchback.

Saturday’s “return” in Memphis should not have counted for reasons the SEC outlined Monday. For starters, the play should’ve been reviewed by replay. Second, two Memphis players wore No. 4 on the play, which is a five-yard penalty.

While the SEC plays arguably the best football among all conferences, it also has arguably the most suspect officiating among all conferences. That was amplified again on Saturday.

Here’s the kicker, pardon the pun, about that play in Memphis – it was not the most egregious officiating error by an SEC crew that day. That distinction falls to the crew working Auburn’s game at Penn State, when it forced the Nittany Lions to punt on third down during the second quarter after losing track of the actual down.

Now that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and company have ensured major Division I college athletics will evolve around the SEC following the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, maybe the SEC should start focusing on improving its football officiating.

It is long overdue.

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.