Notebook: Did an Officiating error prolong Navy's go-ahead touchdown drive?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The referees were not the reason Notre Dame lost to Navy.

But they didn’t help.

With 2:31 remaining in the third quarter on Saturday and Notre Dame clinging to a 24-21 lead, Navy faced a fourth-and-six and opted to punt from its 40-yard line. After the ensuing punt, in which no penalty flag was thrown, the play was reviewed and the officials ruled that Irish safety Devin Studstill had not left the field of play by the time the ball was snapped.

Notre Dame was penalized five yards for having 12 men on the field, and Navy’s offense converted on fourth-and-one and scored the go-ahead touchdown nine plays later.

Navy held on for a 28-27 victory.

But it seems the review that led to Notre Dame’s drive-prolonging penalty should never have taken place.

According to the NCAA rulebook, if a penalty is not thrown during the play, that specific situation is not reviewable.

Here’s a nearly identical situation, straight out of the NCAA case book:

“Third and 10 on the (insert yard line). Before the snap (player) realizes he is the 12th man on the field and runs towards his bench. He is near the sideline and after the ball is snapped his next step puts him on the sideline. There are no flags on the play and the pass is intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

RULING: Not reviewable. If after the snap the player’s next step puts him on the sideline, then the play is not reviewable. Touchdown.”

12 men rule

As the play was happening, according to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, both officials agreed that Studstill’s next step following the football being snapped would have been on the sideline, and thus, no penalty flags were thrown. A replay on the television broadcast also confirmed Studstill’s proximity to the sideline.

Notre Dame safety Devin Studstill (circled, top left) appeared to be within a step of the sideline before Navy snapped the football, and thus, there should not have been a penalty (SBT Photo/Tyler James).

“We all saw the same thing, that he took a step and stepped onto the sideline,” Kelly said. “As long as you're within a step of the sideline, which he was, I felt that he was clearly getting off the field. But it was seen otherwise. Obviously (it was) a very key play in the game.”

A key play with what looks like an incorrect result. Of course, the ACC officiating crew was not the reason Notre Dame had 12 players on the field in the first place. Likewise, the referees didn’t surrender 320 rushing yards and 5.7 yards per carry. Notre Dame’s defense still allowed Navy to travel 60 yards following the penalty’s enforcement, then drain the final 7:28 on its following drive to end the game with a one-point lead.

Still, the question lingers: what would have happened if that particular drive ended with a punt, not a touchdown? Who would have won if Notre Dame got the ball back with a three-point lead?

Injury concerns

Senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. enjoyed perhaps his best game of the season on Saturday, hauling in eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown — all despite sitting out for several drives.

In the first quarter at Everbank Field, Hunter was helped off the field after catching a pass over the middle and taking a shot to his left knee. He returned late in the second quarter and played throughout the rest of the game.

“(Navy’s defensive back) hit me pretty hard in the quad and it shook my knee around a little bit,” said Hunter, who had an ice pack on his left knee in postgame interviews.

Two other players — senior safety Drue Tranquill and freshman corner Julian Love — left Saturday’s game with head injuries, per Kelly.

Hometown hero

Kevin Stepherson looked right at home.

Playing at Everbank Field in his hometown of Jacksonville, Stepherson — a 6-foot, 181-pound freshman wide receiver — continued his recent ascent, snatching four catches for 48 yards.

“He’s unbelievable,” junior quarterback DeShone Kizer said of Stepherson, who attended nearby First Coast High School. “His ability to go up and make big-time catches and also be able to have the ball and take a hitch route and turn it into 30 yards, that’s huge for us. We have to make sure we get the ball to him when opportunities come.”

The most notable play involving Stepherson, however, might have been one he didn’t make. Early in the second quarter, Kizer overthrew a wide open Stepherson up the seam on what would have been a likely touchdown.

The drive ended in Notre Dame’s only punt of the game.

“You try to make the ball come out with the trajectory for your guy to make the play,” Kizer explained. “I got a little aggressive with it, put a little too much on it and it sailed on me. When the ball leaves your hand, there’s obviously quite a bit of time before it gets to the receiver.

“Timing is everything, and in that specific situation I probably could have given him a little more air for him to come down with it.”

Moving forward

What is senior defensive end and team captain Isaac Rochell’s message to his team in the wake of a 3-6 start, as well as the team’s first loss to Navy since 2010?

“First off, I think our team’s going to fight either way,” said Rochell, who finished the game with seven tackles. “That would be our initial message: keep fighting. But I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. Now it’s, ‘Let’s win out and go to a bowl game and let’s play Notre Dame football.’ That’s going to be my message.

“It’s not going to be an issue as far as fighting. I know guys are going to work hard, but (it’s about) just getting a goal and something to look forward to.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to referees during the Notre Dame vs. Navy NCAA college football game at EverBank field in Jacksonville, Florida Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA