FOOTBALL: Plot thickens with Zebra-Gate

The plot has thickened with Zebra-gate. <p> Sunday, Southeastern Conference director of officials Bobby Gaston admitted that two erroneous calls at the end of Saturday night's Florida-Tennessee football game in Knoxville directly affected the outcome of the game, won by Tennessee, 30-28.

Gator Country has learned that further review of game film indicates that as many as 10 or 11 calls in total were blown by the officiating crew with many of the blown calls from the whistle of Bobby Moreau, a former LSU wide receiver/kicker (letterman 1974-76). Gator Country has learned that UF Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley has submitted a CD with the questionable or blown calls highlighted to Gaston at the SEC offices in Birmingham.

Two of the worst calls in Saturday night's game were a personal foul against Lance Butler for an illegal block in the back and a holding call against Randy Hand. While neither of the calls cost Florida a touchdown or gave the ball over to Tennessee, both calls clearly slowed Florida's momentum and stymied what could have been scoring drives.

The call against Butler came in the first quarter on Florida's drive after Tennessee had tied the game at 7-7. With second and four at the Gator 38, Chris Leak hit Ciatrick Fason with a short pass that gained five yards and a first down only to see the play called back for an illegal block on Butler, who had hustled downfield to lead the blocking.

Review of the film clearly shows that Butler never hit the Tennessee player from behind. He got two hands on the side of the Tennessee defender. At best, it is a marginable call that a referee with a clear view would have never made. However, in this case, the official was in seven yards and with a clear view to see Butler's hands on the side of the Tennessee defender, not on the defender's back.

Florida would go on and get a first down on the drive that ended when Leak's pass was intercepted by Jason Allen. However, it remains to be seen what the sequence of plays called by offensive coordinator Larry Fedora might have been if the Gators had gotten the first down to the Tennessee 43 instead of the penalty.

The penalty on Hand is even more blatantly biased. .

The Gators opened the second half with a quick first down. Leak was sacked on the next play for a seven yard loss. With second and 19 at the Florida 28, the Gators got the seven lost yards plus five additional when Leak and OJ Small connected on a pass to the UF 40. However, Hand was whistled for a hold on the play, a ten yard penalty that turned what would have been third and a very makeable seven yards into second down and 29 from the Florida 18.

Review of the game film shows Hand not only didn't hold, he made contact twice, both times with arms fully extended and to the top of the Tennessee defender's pads. At no time did Hand have contact with the defender for more than a split second. Clearly the blocks were legal and both times, the official was within a few feet of the call, looking right at Hand. But, instead of making the proper no-call, Hand was signaled for a penalty that cost the Gators 10 yards.

In both these instances, the blown calls were not outrageous, but they disrupted the Gators momentum. Both calls are part of a pattern of incompetence shown in this game by the officiating crew headed by referee Penn Wagers. Others on the crew included umpire Mike Wallace, linesman: G.A. Gus Morris, line judge Terry Walters, back judge Jimmy Buchanan, field judge Richard Morales and side judge Bobby Moreau.

Moreau has already been cited by Gaston for a blown call of a personal foul against Dallas Baker on what should have been offsetting personal fouls since Baker was retaliating to a face slap by a Tennessee defender or in a better scenario, a no-call with a warning that sent both players to the bench since their actions had zero affect on the play 25 yards away.

The penalty set the Gators back 15 yards to their own 23. Since it was a dead ball call following a third down, Florida was forced to punt. The additional 15 yards of field position allowed Tennessee to get within range of kicker James Wilhoit, who knocked down a 50-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.

Wagers also was cited for Gaston for failure to start the game clock once the 15-yard penalty was marked off against UF. There were 43 seconds on the game clock when the Tennessee took over following Eric Wilbur's punt after the penalty.

Figuring that Eric Wilbur would have asked for the snap with five seconds remaining on the play clock (subtract 20 seconds off when the Vols took over), three seconds to get the snap back to Wilbur and the kick away, and four seconds of hang time on the punt, even if Tennessee had called a fair catch (add a minimum of one second here), there would have only been a maximum of 15 seconds left in the game with the Vols some 61 yards away.

There would have been time for a maximum of three plays, likely only two, had Wagers made the correct call. Instead, Tennessee had 43 seconds, time enough to run five plays before Wilhoit kicked the game winning field goal.

This marks the second time in four games that officials have decided a game that went against the Gators. While the calls against UF in the Tennessee game Saturday night are not as blatant as those made by referee Jack Swindell's Atlantic Coast Conference crew in Florida State's 38-34 victory over the Gators at The Swamp, there were still enough bad calls against the Gators that Jeremy Foley must make a strong statement to Gaston as well as to Mike Slive, the Commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.

It is unfair to Coach Ron Zook who has two losses on his resume that would have been avoided had the officials done the job that they are paid to do.

It is fair to assume that calls will be missed in a game and that some calls are subject to interpretation, but missing an occasional call is far different than missing seven in last year's Florida State game and ten or eleven in this year's game with Tennessee. That many missed calls requires not just extra scrutiny but a full scale investigation.

A missed call or two should be expected since referees without the benefit of replay can't make every call properly. However, the number of blown calls suggests either bias by the officials or total incompetence. In either case, it is inexcusable for a football conference as high profile as the Southeastern Conference or the Atlantic Coast Conference to allow so many mistakes by its officiating crews in any game, much less games of such high profile and importance.

Enough is enough!

TOMORROW: Gator Country will review the tapes of the other missed calls in the Florida-UT game. Part II of Zebra-Gate promises to be very interesting.

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