An enterprising soul has gone frame-by-frame and determined that the Spartans' ballsy fake should never have counted. And yet, the refs called the play exactly as they should have.
Credit on this video goes to the indispensable 30fps, home to announcers screengrabbed in mid-blink, and Mad Men animated gifs. He suggests you watch it full screen and in HD, and it's clear that ESPN's clock graphic is slightly more than a quarter of a second fast. But we can ignore that. It's the stadium clock (more on that in a bit) that matters.
And indeed, the stadium clock hits zero, but the ball isn't snapped for another fifth of a second. Should have been a delay of game. Element of surprise lost, and Mark Dantonio probably calls for a field goal. Who knows what happens then?
The refs did everything they could, says Terry McAulay, the Big East's officiating coordinator.
The responsibility is assigned to the back judge, who, in this situation, was standing beneath the upright," the statement continued. "Proper mechanics dictate that his focus be directed to the play clock as it approaches zero. When the play clock display reads zero, he must re-direct his attention to the ball. At that time, if the snap has not started, a flag will be thrown for delay of game. If the snap has begun, no flag will be thrown.
It's physically impossible for a human to mentally register the double zeros, then re-train his attention on the play in less than a fifth of a second. That's why no flag was thrown, and why no one on the field brought up the clock until after the game, when replays were pored over. The back judge's no-call, though technically wrong, was the only one under the circumstances.
This wasn't the first time Spartan's Stadium clock has been the center of controversy. In 2001, an erroneously added second meant the difference between a loss to Michigan, and a gamewinning pass to T.J. Duckett as time expired. Back then, the clock operators were school employees; in that case, "Spartan Bob" Stehlin. But after that fiasco, the Big Ten and the entire NCAA made changes.
Since 2002, a neutral official controls the stadium time, meaning the scoreboard clock for MSU/ND was the official NCAA time (not that it helped the visiting team here). Additionally, the 2001 Clockgate game led directly to instant replay in college football.
But not comprehensive replay: the only fouls eligible to be challenged are illegal forward passes, line of scrimmage violations, and too many players on the field. While instant replay might have overturned Michigan State's touchdown, that was never an option.
The refs say they handled it correctly. Brian Kelly refuses to complain. So let's all just let it go.