Philadelphia, PA – If you just look at the box score from last Saturday's contest between then-No. 20 Wisconsin and Arizona State, you'd imagine it was one of the better games of the weekend.
With a 32-30 victory, the Sun Devils pulled out a tightly contested matchup that easily could have gone the other way.
If you ask most Wisconsin fans, it probably should have.
With 18 seconds to play, Wisconsin had a first down on the Sun Devils' 13-yard line. Quarterback Joel Stave snapped the ball and moved to his left to center the ball for a potential game-winning field goal. It's a type of play that has been made countless times before.
However, it didn't end like those other sequences. Stave bumped into one of his offensive linemen, and seemed to lose control of the ball before placing it on the 15-yard line. During the progression of the play, Stave also attempted to take a knee, essentially giving himself up.
Despite Stave's actions, several Arizona State players reacted to the ball as if it were a fumble, all while Stave was clearly indicating to officials that he had downed the ball. In the confusion that ensued, the game clock was allowed to run down and the game ended.
No last-second field goal attempt. No defensive stop by the Sun Devils. Just a bizarre lack of decisiveness by the officials that swung the fortunes of an entire season for each team.
In the world of college football, just a single loss can have such mammoth implications and they are already being felt in this case. At 3-0, Arizona State was pushed into the national rankings for the first time this season. Wisconsin remains in the AP Top 25, but fell out of the USA Today poll altogether. It's a difficult pill to swallow for any program, but even more so in this case.
"It's emotional for me to be in a position with my kids to play that hard and then they lose," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said after the game. "It is hard to lose a game like that and we'll move forward and take care of our business."
Though Andersen admirably did not point fingers for the setback, it is difficult to see how his team can take care of its business when it did just that against Arizona State, only to have officials take the game away.
Right or wrong, neither Wisconsin nor Arizona State are considered to be BCS title contenders. Imagine if this same outcome occurred during last weekend's battle between Texas A&M and Alabama. In a postseason system in which wins and losses are entered into a computer without any subjective judgment, a loss like the one the Badgers suffered can't happen. Even though that system is set to change next season, it doesn't necessarily negate the influence of such a setback.
The Pac-12, whose officials were responsible for the debacle, issued a statement on Monday reprimanding the actions of those same men in black and white.
"This was an unusual situation to end the game," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in the release. "After a thorough review, we have determined that the officials fell short of the high standard in which Pac-12 games should be managed. We will continue to work with all our officials to ensure this type of situation never occurs again."
While there is not much else that Scott, or anyone else can do, an apology and unspecified sanctions don't make up for the loss sitting next to Wisconsin's name. In fact, without actually knowing what the sanctions are, it is difficult to really say the Pac-12 is making up for the poor officiating at all.
It is not a good look for Pac-12 officiating in particular. The conference has dealt with some controversial officiating dilemmas in recent years. In a CBS Sports report earlier this year, Pac-12 coordinator of basketball officials Ed Rush was accused of offering monetary rewards for calling technical fouls on Arizona head coach Sean Miller. Then there were the disputed on-side kicks that led to wins for Oregon State over Wisconsin last year and an equally difficult call in a 2006 win for Oregon over Oklahoma.
This situation brings up an issue that has both supporters and detractors on either side. Is it right that when traveling to other stadiums in non-conference play the visiting team must play in a contest officiated by referees from the host squad's league? In this instance, the crew included long-time Pac-12 official Jack Hilliard, who served as referee in Tempe on Saturday.
This is not to say that the officiating at the end of the Wisconsin game was done in any biased or malicious manner. By all rights, the officials seemed just as confused as any fan in the stands or watching at home.
"There is a human element to this game and you win or you lose," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said. "We won, we go to the next deal. Obviously, that was a very unusual deal."
Of course, it is easy for Graham to be understanding, considering the "human element" did not cost his team a victory, but his point is valid.
However, even though human error can occur regardless of where the official's paychecks come from, controversial calls, or lack of calls entirely, add credence to the argument that conference officials should not be used in non-conference games. Perhaps having officials from both conferences, or without any tie to either, overseeing these games could assuage any thought that mistakes are anything more than poor judgment.
What it really boils down to is this: in an era when officials have tried to make every call exactly right thanks to instant replay, how was there no call made either way on Saturday? It's one thing for a group of officials to miss a knee grazing the grass, but not making a call at all seems like an offense that needs more than just reprimanding.