Gaston: Vols got bad call

If you're a Tennessee football fan, you probably think every call that goes against the Vols is wrong. Well, at least one crucial call in last year's 34-14 loss to Alabama WAS wrong. That admission comes -- albeit nine months late -- from no less an expert than Bobby Gaston, supervisor of SEC officials.

Gaston conceded during Kickoff 2003/SEC Media Days this week in Birmingham that the 2002 Vol-Tide game featured a play in which ''One Alabama player whose knee was already down pitched the ball to another Alabama player, whose knee ALSO was down.''

Here's the situation, in case you've forgotten:

Bama, leading 14-7, faced a second-and-four at Tennessee's 34-yard line early in the third quarter. Quarterback Brodie Croyle was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on an option keeper. Though already on the ground, he shoveled the ball to tailback Santonio Beard, who had one knee on the ground when he made the catch. Beard quickly bounced up, however, and ran past surprised Vol defenders for an 18-yard gain.

Officials overlooked the fact that Croyle's knee was on the ground before he made his pitch. And they overlooked the fact that Beard's knee was on the ground when he caught the ball. But they didn't overlook a late hit by Tennessee, calling an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the Vols.

So, instead of third-and-six at the UT 36-yard line, Bama had a first-and-goal at the Vol 8. The bad call thus contributed to a field goal which padded the Tide lead to 17-7.

After watching the play on film, Gaston conceded that his officiating crew blew the call. The official who made the call was shielded by two Vol defenders, Gaston explained, and another official who should've been in position to see the play apparently wasn't looking. He was subsequently reprimanded.

Now, don't you feel better?

Here are a few more interesting tidbits from Gaston:

• Remember all of those ''illegal formation'' calls Tennessee incurred last fall by having too few men on the line of scrimmage? Gaston says this again will be a point of emphasis among SEC officials.

Gaston says an offensive lineman who takes his stance a yard off the ball gains an unfair advantage -- i.e. extra time to watch and react to the moves of the man he's blocking. That's why he is determined that a lineman's head ''must break the plane of the snapper's waist.'' If not, SEC officials will be throwing a penalty flag ... as they did many times in Tennessee's games last fall.

• The ''halo rule'' that protects punt-return specialists has been rescinded. Players covering a punt no longer have to give the return man a three-yard ''cushion'' when he catches the ball. All they have to give him is what Gaston called ''a reasonable opportunity to catch the ball.''

Interestingly enough, Gaston said the halo rule was implemented because coverage men for teams like Fresno State (UT's opening foe this fall) were timing their arrival so they hit the return man just as the ball arrived. This resulted in a lot of fumbled punts and a lot of injured return men.

The rescinding of the halo rule could have an impact on the Vol-Fresno State game. Certainly, UT's return specialists had better use good judgment on whether to make a fair catch or attempt a return against the Bulldogs, who continue to rank among the NCAA's finest programs each year in special teams play.

• If a team incurs an ''unsportsmanlike conduct'' penalty at the end of a touchdown play, the opposing team has the option of taking the penalty on the PAT or on the ensuing kickoff. Although a 15-yard penalty on the offensive team stretches a PAT attempt from the 3-yard line to the 18 (essentially turning the PAT into a 35-yard field goal attempt), Gaston noted that 98 percent of these extended PAT tries were successful. So, teams may opt to have the penalty assessed on the ensuing kickoff. Thus, a defensive penalty on a touchdown could result in the ensuing kickoff coming from the 50-yard line. Should the offensive team incur an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of a TD play, it might have to kick off from its 20-yard line, instead of the 35.

• Gaston is in favor of college officials identifying a player who incurs a penalty ... just as NFL officials do. Instead of saying, ''Holding, offense,'' the referee might say, ''Holding, No. 75, offense.''

''If a baseball player makes a mistake, he gets charged with an error,'' Gaston said. ''If a basketball player commits a foul, he has to raise his hand. And if a hockey player does something wrong, they put him in a (penalty) box. It's only fair that we identify football players, too.''

Gaston says support for this proposal has picked up steam recently. A rule change could be in place in time for the 2004 season.

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