False Flag

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 22, 2019 at 1:05 pm

Ohio State's 116 penalty flags last season were more than any other FBS team - and more than their B1G title game and Rose Bowl opponents, combined.

Urban Meyer went 83-9 at Ohio State, never finished lower than 1st* in the East Division and never lost to Michigan, delivering overwhelming satisfaction to our notoriously fickle football cult. But you know what? We can always find something to bitch about, and last season it was penalties and defense.

Urb's final defense objectively challenged John Cooper's first from 1988 for the worst in modern program history en route to becoming just the third Ohio State team to win 13 games in a single season. A five-star meal, with a hair in every bite.

Lingering just beneath our sepia-tinted memories of Tuf Borland with one healthy Achilles tendon running in mud on artificial turf all season were all of those flags. As bad as the defense was, the penalty accumulation might have been worse.

124th TEXAS 103 894
125TH SOUTH ALABAMA 107 1002
126TH KENT STATE 107 904
126TH CINCINNATI 107 958
129TH OHIO STATE 116 1055

Do you like Holy Shit statistics? Here's one - Ohio State had more penalty yards in 2018 than either Mike Weber or JK Dobbins had rushing yards.

So how does this level of Holy Shittery happen? It starts with discipline, sure - you don't draw 116 flags by accident. Defensive coaching was as bad as ever in 2018, which is a large part of the reason nearly every assistant on that side of the ball is somewhere else in 2019.

Then there's the referee problem, which we're committed to handling like adults and without tinfoil hats. Conference officiating clusters around the country call games with wild variances in applying the same rulebook. For example, five MAC teams racked up more penalties than the worst SEC team. Is the MAC significantly dirtier than the SEC? Thinking emoji goes here.

Anyway, here's a play that resulted in a 15-yard penalty on Ohio State's head coach.

15 yards on the osu bench

The GIF at the top of this column is also of this play, but it's from a camera physically attached to a referee (hail innovation!) which means that's exactly what he was looking at when Dwayne Haskins gave himself up and slid. Like the ref, I don't think this was targeting; it happened too quickly and there was no helmet-to-helmet contact.

But Urban sure did, and I get why.


Slow-motion replay is a seductress. A flag here would have been justified, even if there was no ejection. But the only flag thrown on that play penalized the team of the guy sliding.

Here's Jordan Fuller getting kicked out of the Nebraska game earlier in the month on the opposite side of the same field.

bye bye jordan

Wild variances in applying the same rulebook can also happen within the same conference.

I don't think that's targeting either, but the officials did and the replay booth confirmed it. I also don't know if the replay booth in the Michigan game looked at Furbush's hit on Haskins, but 15 yards later in the wrong direction it didn't really matter. The Buckeyes ended their romp over the Wolverines with 12 flags for 150 yards. Among non-QBs, only Parris Campbell gobbled up more real estate than Ohio State's penalties.

Here's Malcolm Pridgeon getting 15 yards for finishing a block as the play ended behind him, while Devin Bush is giving a borderline out-of-bounds hit to Dobbins. I don't see any penalties here.

15 yards on pridge

Here's a slowed-down version of what the ref who flagged it saw.

practically simultaneous

That's ticky-tack as hell, and it killed both the drive and the Buckeyes' momentum. Sometimes you get the calls, sometimes you don't, sometimes refs just make shit up.

Three of Ohio State's cleanest games of the 2018 season came in the opener against Oregon State, in Arlington against Texas Christian and in the Rose Bowl against Washington. You might want to sit down for this news - Big Ten refs were not involved in those three games. They called the shots in all of the others, which was where the Buckeyes earned that 129th place ranking.

It's possible Ohio State was more disciplined when referees from other leagues were involved. It's more likely that they benefited from a different approach to officiating games. It could have been a combination of both!

Still, Big Ten teams were bookends nationally - no team was better at avoiding flags in 2018 than the West Division Champion Northwestern Wildcats. That's the same Northwestern that was both smaller and slower at literally every position on the field and played four full quarters without earning a single judgement penalty in the B1G title game.

The Wildcats had three flags the whole night - one where a lineman jumped (refs have to call those; it's weird if they don't) one for an illegal substitution in plain sight and one for illegal formation on a punt. Not a single interference call benefitting Ohio State's receiving corps that stuffed their back seven in a trash can throughout the evening. Not a single holding penalty for a defensive line that was being tackled space. No flags at all until the very end of the 3rd quarter.

Ohio State had more penalty yards in 2018 than either Mike Weber or JK Dobbins had rushing yards.

Meanwhile, Isaiah Prince followed Pridgeon's giant footsteps and was flagged for finishing a block, turning a 29-yard gain into a tone-shifting, drive-killing 15-yard loss. That's a 44-yard swing on an excruciating ticky-tack flag in a championship game. Fuller was flagged 15 yards for an illegal block below the waist on a reverse. It's the middle of the offseason, so maybe you forgot that he plays defense. Hey, at least he wasn't ejected.

I've never seen an illegal block called on a defender where an interception return or a change of possession wasn't involved in my life, and I've seen a one-point safety. This was brand new for me, and it happened in a game where one team was exempt from subjective flags.

The Buckeyes were called for every infraction they committed as well as a few more that they didn't, while the Wildcats got dinged only for being drunk and disorderly in the police department parking lot.

Some teams get lucky and don't even get flagged for those.

Tanner Schultheis sounds just like a hyperbolic, partisan fan - but he's not.

And he's not wrong. It certainly does feel like officiating has gotten progressively worse, overthought and ineffectively micromanaged recently. Ohio State was historically sloppy in 2018, and also on the receiving end of some of the most uneven officiating throughout the year - but especially in its two showcase games at the end of the season where it tried and failed to make its case for inclusion into the College Football Playoff.

Both of these things can be true. It doesn't have to be a conspiracy. Perhaps the 2019 Buckeyes will show more discipline and be able to avoid the flags it earned last season. As for the flags it didn't get and the ones it didn't earn, those fall outside the scope of controlling the controllable.

An average defense and number of mistakes would be a marked improvement this season. Those should be the aspiration. Positive ref karma would simply be a welcome bonus.

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