Photo Sequence: See a series of photos from Alyssa Schukar of the controversial fumble
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LINCOLN — Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini offered measured comments like a man on the right side of one of the closest, more controversial calls in Husker history.
Two days after NU's 32-23 win over Penn State, Pelini said a goal-line play that referees ruled a fumble on the field, a decision the replay official upheld, remained a call too close to change — even after Pelini saw TV replays of Nittany Lion tight end Matt Lehman appearing to break the plane of the goal line with the football before Nebraska linebacker David Santos knocked it out.
“I looked at the TV angle,” Pelini said at his Monday press conference. “It was not a good angle. The one angle that I did see that was on the goal line — that was actually on the goal line — looked like it was coming out.
“But I think it was so close. I'd go with what I said after the game: If they had called it a touchdown, they probably wouldn't have reversed it. But they called it a fumble on the field, and it was too close to reverse it.”
Not surprisingly, that's not necessarily the feeling of Penn State fans. Some of the media that cover the program took issue with the call, too.
It triggered an array of arguments, emotions, debates and laments. The raw wound that is the ongoing sex abuse scandal in State College — and the four-year NCAA hammer of penalties that resulted from it — appeared to have opened a little wider over the weekend.
And when PSU quarterback Matt McGloin hinted after the game at a potential conspiracy to keep Penn State from getting good calls, reporters who write about the Nittany Lions at least acknowledged that fans who wanted to buy into McGloin's theory had some latitude to do so.
“Even all but the most defiant of Nebraska partisans, I'm sure, can't deny that Lehman scored Penn State a go-ahead touchdown before losing the ball,” wrote Devon Edwards on the popular Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries.
Edwards went on to write:
“The only possible explanation, then, is that the replay official was clouded by bias. Maybe he grew up a Nebraska fan. Maybe Tom Osborne slipped him a couple hundred bucks before the game. Maybe, like so many indignant reporters around this time a year ago, he wanted to show the world just how much he hates child abuse, and decided to take it out on Penn State.
“Sound farfetched? Sure, but what's the alternative? That he, objectively, watched the same replay we all watched, studied it as closely as we did, and decided that no, it didn't clearly show, beyond any reasonable doubt, a Penn State touchdown? Does he not have eyes?
By Monday afternoon, Edwards' post had 911 comments — many in support — and 298 “likes” from Facebook users.
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David Jones, who has covered Penn State football for two decades for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., had an in-depth analysis:
“As far as guys who make a call one way or another simply because they don't happen to like a certain team or coach? In general, I think it's such a silly premise as to not even be worth addressing.
“Well, this one leaves me without a case. Does that mean I think the replay guys consciously made a decision to screw Penn State because of the Sandusky scandal? No. I don't know a thing about the men who made the decision.
“It just means I have no ammo to refute that viewpoint. That it was such an egregious error, I can't discard the notion. The evidence was right there to see. And it was disregarded. How can that be explained? ...
“Then again, I suppose what's a reasonable doubt to some is unreasonable to others. To the most persnickety of those installed with the mandate of replay official, a call must be 100-percent irrefutable. I would call this one about 99 percent. Only because NASA didn't have a surveillance camera pointed at Lehman from overhead. In other words, how much proof is enough?
Blue and White Illustrated columnist Nate Bauer offered an alternate theory:
“Is it a conspiracy by the Big Ten to further punish the program?
“The glaring reality of that answer might actually be worse, though.
“To pull off a vast conspiracy, competence is needed, and if the league's officiating has proven anything in recent seasons — not just in dealing with Penn State, but the other 11 member teams as well — that is simply not present in an old boy network that repeatedly fails the players and coaches that work tirelessly for their one opportunity to play a fair, well-officiated game each weekend.”
The message boards on Blue and White Illustrated — which is part of the Rivals.com network — had dozens of topics devoted to the call. One of them was started by a Penn State fan who referred to the Sunday World-Herald that had a photo of what he believed clearly showed Lehman extending the ball over the goal line.
Poster nits74 left this comment: “Great picture that says it all. Yes, willful cheating is correct.”
Columnist Adam Bittner of The Daily Collegian, Penn State's student newspaper, cautioned against Nittany Lion fans taking a kind of “bunker mentality” after calls don't go their way.
“If the program's supporters continue to let things like this ruin their enjoyment of what was a classic battle on the Plains, it's going to be a long, painful slog through the NCAA's sanctions for them. It also looks really bad from the outside. Every time fans play the 'victim' card over trivial things like a bad call on the football field, it cheapens the true suffering of those Sandusky abused.”
Mike Gross of the Lancaster (Pa.) Sunday News lamented that one play could detract from what had been a closely-contested game and steer observers back toward a scandal.
“This was an epic college football game. It had more plot twists than 'Breaking Bad,' and more heroics than 'Braveheart.'
“And now we have to talk about referees and replay booths and tiny fractions of an inch and/or second and controversy and, yes, claims of conspiracy.
“Which means we have to again talk, if even in a small and very indirect way, about Jerry Sandusky.”