COMMENTARY

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One of these years, West Virginia fans will file out of Milan Puskar Stadium after the final home game of the season without cursing a critical officiating decision.

Good luck guessing when.

For the second straight season, the WVU home finale was marred by a controversial call benefiting a team from Oklahoma.

Though neither one directly changed the outcome of the game – plenty of time remained in both instances to overcome the calls – there’s no disputing that each robbed the Mountaineers of golden scoring opportunities.

Last year it was the excessive blocking penalty called against receiver T.J. Simmons on a 72-yard Kennedy McKoy gain that brought the Mountaineers inside the 10-yard line as they drove for a potential go-ahead fourth quarter score against Oklahoma. Instead, they were pushed back to midfield and victimized by a scoop-and-score on a sack-fumble three plays later.

That one was a judgment call. Many officials would have kept the flag in their pockets on Simmons’ block, but the play carried far enough away from the actual field that it was reasonable for it to be deemed excessive based on an individual’s interpretation of what happened.

In this case of Sam James’ second quarter touchdown that never was against Oklahoma State, the call simply appears to have been botched.

“They felt his shin was down,” Brown explained after the game. “I didn’t see it that way.”

It’s hard to see how anyone saw it that way. Both members of ESPN2’s broadcast booth, Beth Mowins and Anthony Becht, reached the conclusion that the call on the field would likely be overturned after viewing multiple replay angles.

Screen capture from ESPN2 telecast

A freeze frame shows Sam James’ ankle on the ground as he attempts to score a touchdown. Officials told Neal Brown that James’ shin touched the ground, making him down by rule.

The best available angle shows James’ ankle making contact with the turf. There is clearly air between his shin and the ground — so much that you can see his shadow. It is possible that his lower leg scraped the ground just above his ankle, but the replay provides no conclusive evidence that it happened.

According to the NCAA rulebook, a play is dead “When any part of the ball carrier’s body, except his hand or foot, touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body, except his hand or foot.”

The ankle, from an anatomical perspective, should be considered part of the foot rather than an extension of someone’s shin.

Brown said he would seek an official explanation from Big 12 director of officials Greg Burks, and he is certainly owed one.

That said, the Mountaineers still have only themselves to blame for not tying the game at 7 on the drive in question. Their inability to punch the ball in from a first-and-goal inside the 1 was far too unsurprising and indicative of red zone issues that have plagued West Virginia all season.

After Saturday’s performance, the Mountaineers rank 121st in the country in red zone touchdown rate at 46.9 percent. Whether it’s a result of their inability to get a push up front, poor execution, ill-timed penalties or predictability in play calling, this is an area in which WVU desperately needs to improve next year.

A failure to finish drives is difficult for any team to overcome in the long run. Of the nine teams in the country worse than West Virginia in the red zone, only two have winning records – San Diego State and Utah State.

Given this team’s youth, it’s hardly surprising that the Mountaineers have not been good enough to overcome their own mistakes this season. The shame of the situation is that they also may have been forced to overcome someone else’s mistake on Saturday — and that’s a storyline West Virginia fans would like to stop seeing repeated.