Controversial fumble key ingredient in Navy upset

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If you were to diagram the anatomy of an upset, Robby Parris’ fumble on the third play from scrimmage could qualify as the first crucial piece needed for a Navy victory. The only way Navy was going to win this football game was for Notre Dame’s offense to give up possessions, and starting in the first hundred seconds of the game, Navy got that wish.

With Jimmy Clausen flushed to his right, he found Parris squatting in the right flat just across Navy’s side of the fifty. Parris caught the low throw, then was quickly wrapped up by cornerback Blake Carter, who pulled Parris awkwardly down, his helmet popping off and the ball coming loose.

The referee’s whistle blew no fewer than ten times before linebacker Ram Vela scurried over, first closing in on the play before hopping onto the ball as Robby Parris hobbled off without his helmet. Yet without a replay board in the stadium, Navy smartly challenged the ruling on the field.

The Big East replay official overturned the ruling on the field, awarding the football to the Midshipmen. Twelve plays, six minutes, and two crucial fourth down conversions later, Navy lead 7-0, bleeding half of the first quarter away in the meantime.

When asked about the overturned fumble during his press conference Tuesday, Charlie Weis was understandably rankled.

“The whistle had blow,” Weis said. “What I was disputing is that they blew the whistle and stopped the play
and then there’s a rule, a seldom called rule about a fumble after
continuous play even though the whistle had blown. So I mean it’s not a
question whether the whistle had blown. The whistle had blown.

“So this isn’t like your normal ball’s on the ground everyone goes and
scrambles and gets it. About five or ten seconds later the guy goes and
recovers it. They had called it down. They were just moving forward.
They got challenged and got overruled by — I know the rule number and
everything about continuous play.

“But I’m saying to myself: You blew the play dead. Five seconds later they go recover the ball and now it’s a fumble? But there is a rule about continuous play. Now, that rule does exist.”

After watching the replay, it’s pretty easy to see Weis’ point. Parris made no effort to fall on the loose ball as the whistle had clearly sounded, and no referee threw a bean bag or signaled anything other than that the play was clearly over.

Taking things a step further, here’s the text straight from the NCAA Football rulebook.

Rule 12-3-3-b states:

A ball carrier judged to have been down by rule when the recovery of a fumble by an opponent or teammate occurs in the immediate action following the fumble and is prior to any official signaling that the ball is dead.

(Note 1: If the ball carrier is judged down by rule and the replay official does not have indisputable video evidence as to which player recovers the fumble, the ruling of down-by-rule stands.)

(Note 2: If the ruling of down-by-rule is reversed, the ball belongs to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery and any advance is nullified.)

After watching the play a dozen times, it’s pretty hard to say with certainty that the fumble was recovered in the immediate action following the fumble. Vela was eight yards away from the play when the tackle was made, and while he was in continuous motion, it’s pretty tough to call Vela hopping on the ball an immediate action, especially since he’s the only player (or referee) on the field to even notice the loose ball.

While it’s certainly not the only reason Notre Dame lost the game on Saturday, it’s another one of those pivotal plays that seemed to have gone against Notre Dame this season (especially on their home field).

To his credit, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo sensed the importance of this opening drive, burning two timeouts, converting two fourth downs (not to mention overcoming a 2nd and 14 and a 3rd and 10), before Dobbs snuck the ball over left guard for a touchdown.

Navy needed a crucial early turnover to spring the upset, and thanks to Parris’ fumble, Vela’s heads-up play, a bold challenge by Niumatalolo, and a interpretive replay official, Navy got what it needed.