It is the play that the game will be remembered for and one that was decided by a subjective rule as the game hung in the balance.
Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown leapt into the air on a third down and six situation in overtime as the Rebels trailed 36-29. Brown caught the football, tucked it and fell to the ground. Brown’s right arm that cradled the football separated from his stomach/chest area as he appeared to try to brace himself as he hurdled toward the ground. The football squirted out, bringing a subjective rule with little precedent challenging it in the college game to the forefront. The officials reviewed the play and determined Brown did not survive the ground with control of the football, and therefore it was no catch.
The Rebels lost the game a play later when a back shoulder fade to Damarkus Lodge was broken up. By the letter of the rule, the officiating crew appeared to get the call right. But it is a murky and subjective rule that leaves room for doubt and dispute.
“I had two feet in, two feet down, knee down,” a frustrated Brown said. “I felt like I had control of it. Two feet down, knee down, still had control of it, tucked it and brought it back out. How much more control do you need?”
What is the letter of the rule?
“If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent) he must maintain complete and continuous control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or in the end zone,” the rule states.
The wording is different, but it is essentially the equivalent to a rule that the NFL recently changed that the player has to survive the ground with full control of the football. What appeared to be a catch to the naked eye is actually an incompletion by rule.
“(The officials) said they sent it Birmingham because they weren’t sure,” head coach Matt Luke said. “It looked like he had possession and they guy knocked it out when he was down. That is what it looked like on the jumbotron from what I saw.”
That was the explanation Luke was given in the moment. As far as a further explanation? That’s a little more uncertain. Vice Chancellor for Collegiate Athletics Ross Bjork said after the game that Ole Miss has already reached out to the SEC for an explanation, but has not heard back. Bjork said they send in plays on a weekly basis as standard protocol. He says they usually wait until Sunday to send them in after seeing it on film. They typically get a response on Monday or Tuesday of that week. Bjork seemed unsure if Ole Miss would get a direct response from the SEC regarding that play in particular.
“You can’t control calls whether they are good calls or bad calls,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “The calls are what they are and you have to go find a way to win the game anyway and we didn’t do that.”
Brown was understandably frustrated and noted the sideline was surprised when the call was overturned. Thoughts of the infamous Dez Bryant catch at Lambeau Field in a playoff game in 2014.
“I definitely thought about it,” Brown said. I thought ‘What do you have to do to get a catch? I know this is college, but dang, still.”
The ruling was a dose of misfortune for the Rebels and helped hand Ole Miss its fourth consecutive loss.
“I know these guys will get back up and play,” Brown said. “I have no doubt.”