Officials lose track of downs, cause Penn State to punt on 3rd down

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Trailing Auburn 10-7 in the second quarter, Penn State punted on third down. Yes, you read that correctly.

Penn State had to send its punt team onto the field because the officiating crew incorrectly said it was fourth down. It was the second officiating gaffe in a series of three plays.

Here’s how it went down.

Penn State had a first-and-10 from its own 33-yard line when Sean Clifford fired one downfield to nobody in particular. You see, Penn State receiver Parker Washington had cut off his route and wasn’t on the same page with his quarterback. It was likely some sort of option route where the receiver can adjust his route based on the coverage.

Clifford thought Washington was going deep, but he curled back toward the quarterback instead. Miscommunications happen often, but the officials curiously said it was intentional grounding on Clifford because there were no receivers in the area where the ball was thrown.

Clifford wasn’t even under pressure from the Auburn defense, as is almost always the case when grounding is called, but the flag was thrown anyway.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) scrambles away from Auburn defensive end Colby Wooden (25) during an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) scrambles away from Auburn defensive end Colby Wooden (25) during an NCAA college football game against Auburn in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

With an intentional grounding penalty comes a loss of down. So instead of the penalty yardage being assessed and first down being replayed, it then became second-and-16 from the 28. On that play, Clifford hit Jahan Dotson for a five-yard gain.

It should have been third-and-11 from the 33. But the down markers read fourth down. PSU then sent its punt team out and Jordan Stout booted one 58 yards to the Auburn 9-yard line.

It wasn’t until a few minutes later when the broadcast crew realized that Penn State lost a down.

James Franklin certainly didn’t. The Penn State coach was going crazy on the sideline, but the damage was already done. The punt already happened, and possession had already switched over to Auburn.

SEC admits to mistake

After the game, which Penn State won 28-20, the SEC officiating crew's mistake was acknowledged by the conference. 

In addition to the crew on the field getting it wrong, the SEC also said the replay booth "was consulted." The folks in the replay booth also believed it should have been fourth down. 

"At 11:45 in the second quarter, Penn State throws an incomplete pass that was judged to be intentional grounding. The crew's enforcement of that penalty erroneously set the down to 3rd; the correct down should have been 2nd," the SEC statement says. 

Once the mistake was discovered during the media timeout, Penn State had already punted the ball. It was too late.

"The replay booth was consulted to confirm the down prior to the punt. The replay booth had the down as 4th down as well. The error was discovered during the media timeout that followed the punt and by rule it could not be corrected at that time," the SEC said. 

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