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Flag gone wrong? A look at the most controversial calls in college football history

On the final play of the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel’s fourth-down pass in overtime fell to the turf.

It looked as though Miami had won a 24-17 thriller to capture the BCS national championship. The Hurricanes would have joined Alabama (1978-79) and Nebraska (1994-95) as the only schools in the past 35 years to win consecutive national titles.

The U. dynasty was back.

And then …

Terry Porter, the field judge from the Big 12 Conference crew, threw what is arguably the most controversial penalty flag in college football history.

What made it worse was he waited a few seconds (which in retrospect now feels like an eternity) to make up his mind to throw it. Porter ultimately called pass interference on Miami’s Glenn Sharpe, and the Buckeyes were given a first down. Krenzel scored on third down, and Maurice Clarett scored in a second overtime.

Ohio State won 31-24 to claim its first national title in 34 years.

The 2003 Fiesta Bowl will be presented on Throwback Thursday: CFB Classics (7 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).

Before the controversial ending is shown again, two of our experts, Bill Connelly and Mark Schlabach, discuss the pass interference penalty and other infamous blown calls in college football lore:

First things first: Was pass interference the right call?

Schlabach: Clearly, I think it depends on which team you were rooting for that night. Ohio State fans probably think it was the most accurate penalty call of all time, while Miami fans are still cursing Porter’s name to this day.

Whether you believe it was right or wrong, there’s no denying Porter took forever to throw the flag, which is what made the penalty so controversial. The line judge on the sideline looking directly at the play didn’t throw a flag. Neither did Porter after the ball hit the ground. Fireworks went off, and Miami’s players, coaches and fans stormed the field in celebration. At least three or four seconds went by before Porter threw the flag. Porter said he waited to replay the play in his mind and “wanted to make double sure it was the right call.”

Unfortunately for Miami, Porter was wrong.

After going back and watching the play over and over again on YouTube, it sure looks like intended receiver Chris Gamble just dropped the ball. It wasn’t a perfect throw from Krenzel, but the ball was catchable and went right through Gamble’s arms. Sure, Sharpe grabbed Gamble’s jersey for a split second, but I don’t think it was enough to alter the play. Sharpe even turned his head around, which isn’t required in college football.

In a moment like that, on fourth down in overtime with a national championship on the line, I think an official should swallow his whistle. Both Gamble and Sharpe had a right to the ball, and I don’t think Sharpe’s contact was enough to alter the play.

As Miami defensive backs coach Mark Stoops (now Kentucky’s head coach) said after the game, “There’s not another official in the history of the game that would make that call.”

Interestingly, in September 2007, Referee magazine included Porter’s decision among the 18 best calls in officiating history. The magazine said that “Porter’s courage was exemplary” and that he “did himself proud that night.”

Connelly: Yeah, I mentioned last week I was OK with the call — it was within the range of both “it was fair to call” and “you didn’t have to call it.” But the pause made all the difference. You wait a beat, don’t see a flag and start to celebrate. It was one of the most spectacular teases the sport has seen, even if there was technically contact and technically could have been called.

Where does the call rank on your list of most controversial calls?

Schlabach: I think you might argue that it was the worst call of all time because of what was at stake. It cost Miami a second consecutive national title and ended its 34-game winning streak. It was a call made on the last play of the sport’s most important game. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. But it was also a judgment call and not a miscarriage of the rule book.

There have been more boneheaded officiating mistakes — Colorado’s five downs in 1990, Nebraska’s “flea kicker” against Missouri in 1997, Oregon’s onside kick against Oklahoma in 2006 and Central Michigan’s extra down against Oklahoma State in 2016. But those were poor officiating calls made during regular-season games. There wasn’t as much at stake, as painful as they might have been for the losing side. Of course, those blunders did help Colorado and Nebraska keep their respective national championship-winning seasons intact.

Colorado’s fifth down was probably the worst call because the officials on the field weren’t even counting plays.

Connelly: And Charles Johnson did not score on fifth down, either!

Sorry. I usually keep that Mizzou fan tucked away and out of sight.

Colorado was the recipient of that call — and the Rocket Ismail clip — and managed to win a national title despite a loss and a tie. The 1990 season was truly one of the strangest of all time.

In terms of egregiousness, though, I might always rank that Oregon-Oklahoma onside kick call as the worst call ever. The others were judgment calls or sources of confusion or whatever, but not only did Oregon almost certainly illegally touch the ball before it had gone 10 yards, an Oklahoma player also emerged from the pile with the ball. And they still gave it to Oregon!

Granted, there’s at least a small chance that, if that play is called correctly, we don’t get an Oklahoma-Boise State Fiesta Bowl later that season. Florida probably still reaches the BCS title game over a 12-1 Oklahoma, but it’s probably best that we didn’t leave that one to chance. The college football universe would have missed out without Oklahoma-Boise State. (I’m going to assume Sooners fans disagree.)

Does a little bit of controversy help or hurt the esteem of a classic game like this?

Schlabach: I think it only helps its place in history. Mention Porter’s name in Columbus, Ohio, or Miami and fans will instantly remember him throwing the flag. It was a classic game regardless because there was so much talent on the field that night, including 18 first-round NFL draft picks. A total of 58 players from those teams eventually played in the pros. The penalty simply added spice to an instant classic.

Connelly: I don’t necessarily mind it. As a writer, I don’t put an asterisk by Ohio State’s victory, just as I didn’t put an asterisk by Clemson’s win in last season’s Fiesta Bowl despite the controversial targeting and no-catch calls that both went against the Buckeyes. Stuff happens.

Controversial calls also make sure that college football’s Pettiness Quotient is always high. Miami fans can forever tell Ohio State fans that their team didn’t really win that title, just as Ohio State fans will say the same to Clemson, and Mizzou fans will say it to Colorado and Nebraska fans.

Overtime aside, what’s your most lasting memory from this game?

Schlabach: Unfortunately, it is probably Miami running back Willis McGahee’s horrific knee injury in the fourth quarter. After catching a screen pass from Ken Dorsey, McGahee was immediately hit by Ohio State’s Will Allen. McGahee’s left knee was bent backward, causing tears of his ACL, MCL and posterior cruciate ligament. It was so horrific to watch.

I’m sure Miami fans have debated whether the Fiesta Bowl even goes into overtime if McGahee wasn’t hurt. I sat there wondering whether he would ever play again, and I was stunned when he didn’t collect a $2.5 million insurance premium and entered the 2003 NFL draft. He needed several surgeries and extensive rehabilitation to recover, but ended up running for nearly 8,500 yards for four teams in 10 pro seasons in an incredible comeback.

Connelly: Luckily, I’ve completely blocked out all memory of that injury. It was so bad that I locked it away, never to envision it again. Thanks to that, my lasting memory is just constantly thinking, “How is Ohio State still in this game?”

And I’m assuming Miami coaches and players were thinking the same thing. The Buckeyes averaged 3.7 yards per play, blew multiple scoring chances and threw two picks. Krenzel was their leading rusher. Clarett — a running back — forced and recovered a fumble. Nothing about this game made sense. It was a masterful smoke-and-mirrors show, even by Jim Tressel’s standards. And that made it intensely memorable, even before the controversy.

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