North Carolina had a chance, at least. After allowing more yards than it had all season, after trailing by 19 points – twice – in the second half, the Tar Heels had hope on Saturday night in the final moments of the ACC Championship game against Clemson.
The Tar Heels had just scored a touchdown with 73 seconds to play. They lined up for an onside kick. And what happened next will be remembered for a long time – and remembered more than anything else that happened during UNC’s 45-37 defeat.
Freeman Jones, the UNC kicker, executed the play perfectly. The ball bounced just right, ricocheted off a Clemson player just right and was there for taking – there for the Tar Heels to recover it. And so they did. At least it seemed that way.
While UNC recovered the onside kick with one minute, eight seconds remaining, a flag rested back near where Jones had began the play. The official called an offside penalty. Larry Fedora, the UNC coach, reacted with disbelief. And some anger.
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“I had a chance to look at it,” Fedora said later. “And they missed it. They were wrong.”
The ACC, though, has stood by the call. Which has only added to the controversy. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions – and their answers, as best we know them – surrounding UNC’s onside kick recovery that was negated by an offside call:
Q: Is it possible that the play could have been reviewed and overturned?
A: No. The play was not reviewable.
Q: Why not?
A: Let’s answer a question with a question: Why do you need 10 yards for a first down? Because that’s what the rules say. And according to the rules, determining whether a kickoff team was offside at the time of the kick is not a reviewable play.
Q: But I saw a portion of the rulebook that said reviewable plays involving kicks include ones to determine whether a “player (was) beyond the neutral zone when kicking the ball.” What gives?
A: That rule refers specifically to the player who is kicking the ball. Like, say, a punter. If there was a question about whether a punter was beyond the line of scrimmage when he kicked the ball, that would be reviewable. Whether members of the kickoff team are offside at the time of a kickoff is, again, not a reviewable play.
Q: So what exactly was the call on UNC’s first onside kick on Saturday night?
A: The call was that one of UNC’s players had broken the plane of the 35-yard line, which is the line that players must be behind when the kicker makes contact with the ball. According to a statement from an ACC spokesperson, “The 35-yard line is treated as a plane and if any part of a player breaks that plane before the ball is kicked it’s offsides. The officials saw a member of the kicking team break the plane before the ball was kicked.”
Q: I’ve seen images and read rules on social media that suggest UNC might have been lined up illegally on the play, anyway. How does that fit into this play?
A: The simplest way to answer that: It doesn’t. The official called the penalty because he believed he saw a UNC player cross the plane of the 35-yard line. The way UNC lined up before the onside kick had nothing to do with official calling the penalty.
Q: Well, freeze frames of the play clearly show that UNC was not offside, right?
A: That seems to be the case. At the time Jones made contact with the ball, it appears every other member of the kickoff team is behind the 35-yard line.
Q: Does that mean the officiating crew made a mistake?
A: Based on the available images from the TV broadcast, it appears that it was a bad call.
Q: It is 100 percent definitive, though, that they got the call wrong?
A: Seems so, based on the images from the TV broadcast. But...
Q: But what?
A: But there’s no down-the-line camera placed at the 35-yard line. So as convincing as it seems that the call was wrong, based on the still images from the broadcast, it’s impossible to know where players actually were in relation to the 35-yard line at the time Jones made contact with the ball. Remember, any portion of a player’s body that crosses that plane would constitute a penalty.
Q: So that means the ACC will admit its mistake, right?
A: No. Remember, the ACC stands by the call. The officials were in the right position to make an offside call, according to Dennis Hennigan. He’s the director of ACC football officiating. Hennigan told a league spokesperson, again, that an official saw a UNC player break the plane of the 35-yard line.
Q: So what now? Will the ACC tell UNC it made a mistake? Is an apology coming?
A: Doesn’t seem very likely. UNC coach Larry Fedora, who was on the road recruiting on Sunday, said he hadn’t heard anything from the league office about the controversial call. He doesn’t anticipate hearing anything, either. As for “what now” – now the play will just live on in infamy. It’s likely to remain one of those great what-ifs.
Q: Yeah. So what if UNC’s recovery had stood?
A: The Tar Heels would have had the ball near midfield, down eight points, with three timeouts and little more than a minute remaining. Plenty of time. There’s no telling what could have happened, what would have happened – but Fedora said the way UNC had been moving the ball in the fourth quarter, he liked the Tar Heels chances.