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ASU vs. Wisconsin: The game-ending play explained

They don't call it the wild west for nothing. While the East Coast slept, Arizona State and Wisconsin produced one of the most thrilling finishes in recent memory.

Todd Graham couldn't believe the way the final seconds played out.
Todd Graham couldn't believe the way the final seconds played out.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

UPDATE: The Pac-12 has released the following statement announcing that the conference will be reprimanding the officials from the ASU-Wisconsin game.

Walnut Creek, Calif. -- Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has reprimanded and taken additional sanctions against officials in Saturday night's Wisconsin at Arizona State game for failing to properly administer the end of game situation and act with appropriate urgency on the game's final play, it was announced today.

With 18 seconds remaining in the game, Wisconsin's quarterback ran the ball toward the center of the field, touched his knee to the ground and then placed the ball on the ground. There was initial uncertainty over whether the quarterback had taken a knee, given himself up or fumbled the ball. As a result several Arizona State players considered the ball live and a fumble, and attempted to recover the ball.

Neither the referee nor anyone on his crew moved with appropriate urgency to clearly communicate that the ball was to be spotted so play could resume promptly.

"This was an unusual situation to end the game," said Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott. "After a thorough review, we have determined that the officials fell short of the high standard in which Pac-12 games should be managed. We will continue to work with all our officials to ensure this type of situation never occurs again."

In terms of wild finishes, it's hard to recall something that rivals the utter confusion that surrounds the final play of the Arizona State-Wisconsin game on Saturday night.

"I mean, I've never really seen anything like it in college football," Sun Devil cornerback Osahon Irabor said.

The Sun Devils and Badgers played 59 minutes and 42 seconds of mistake-filled football, but Irabor knows that all of that is forgotten because of what took place during the final 18 seconds of the game.

After a first down completion, Wisconsin had possession on the Sun Devils' 13-yard line and looked poised to pull off a heart-breaking victory in the desert. The Badgers needed a field goal to overcome a 32-30 deficit in the closing seconds.

With 18 seconds on the clock, quarterback Joel Stave took a snap and dashed to his left to center the football in the middle of the field. Stave's goal was to take a knee between the hash marks to allow place kicker Kyle French a dead-on approach for a game-winner.

When he reached the center of the field, Stave bumped into right guard Ryan Groy and abruptly realized he should take a knee. Stave's reaction was uncertain, and his kneel down attempt was undeniably poor. Instead of firmly planting his knee in the ground, Stave popped right up and placed the ball on the ground for the referee to spot.

Sun Devil coach Todd Graham saw Stave's quick kneel down and is far from convinced that the Wisconsin quarterback should have been ruled down.

"The quarterback put the ball on the ground while he was still standing up, so that should have been a turnover," Graham said.

Jaxon Hood and Anthony Jones saw exactly what Graham saw and pounced on the football within moments of realizing Stave put the ball on the ground. In all likelihood, a referee blew his whistle when Stave's knee approached the ground. But the whistle was far from definitive and Arizona State's players were smart to react.

"He hadn't been tackled, so that should have been a turnover," Graham said. "That should have ended the game."

Normally, if a whistle blows and a defensive player prevents the offense from snapping the football, a delay of game penalty is issued. In this instance, the referees had not reached a consensus about whether Stave's knee touched the ground or Arizona State recovered a fumble. The referee responsible for spotting the football, the umpire, was looking for assistance on which team he should award possession.

The referees' lack of urgency combined with the Badgers inability to stop the clock led to a frantic ending. Wisconsin did not have a timeout left, and its offensive players did not recognize the running clock until four seconds remained. Two Badger linemen stood two yards behind the football and by the time they set, the clock struck zero.

Todd Graham believed the Badgers should never have had the opportunity to get set because his players jumped on a loose football.

"He (Stave) ran over to spot the ball and we never tackled him," Graham said. "He put the ball on the ground. I mean it's a fumble, make sense?"

Did Stave's knee touch the ground? There's photographic evidence that shows Stave's knee on the ground, but the photograph is not completely conclusive.

Prior to this debacle, Wisconsin wide receiver Jeff Duckworth appeared to step out of bounds around his own 35-yard line on a 51-yard reception. The evidence that Duckworth stepped out appears as strong as the evidence that Stave's knee touched the ground. The referees decided that the evidence on Duckworth's reception was inconclusive.

If Stave and the Badgers had time to align correctly and spike the ball, the Badgers would have attempted a last-second field goal from 32 yards out. Wisconsin's placekicking struggles are well documented and the Sun Devils have an excellent field goal block unit.

But to suggest that Wisconsin might miss the field goal is missing the point. The issue is that the Badgers were denied the opportunity to kick the last second field goal because of the confusion on the field.

Does the blame fall on Arizona State for falling on a fumble after a whistle? Does it fall on Wisconsin for poor clock management? Or does it fall on the referees for mishandling the final seconds of the game and creating a sense of uncertainty?

All three parties are responsible for the situation. That doesn't mean the final seconds should be replayed nor does it mean that referees should be fired. Crazy things happen in college football, and that's why we love the sport. The Badgers might have been robbed, but every coach on their staff will tell you they had opportunities to put the game away many times before that final play.

Arizona State safety Alden Darby summed up the chaos best.

"When things like that go your way it just goes to show you that you should win all along," Darby said.

Osahon Irabor said the Sun Devils' goal was to play until the final whistle, and that's why he was so inspired by his fellow defenders' performances tonight.

"I'm just really proud of the way we kept battling until the last second," Irabor said. "We just kept fighting and fighting."

Irabor knows this is just the beginning of what could turn out to be a special season for the Sun Devils. And every magical season comes with a few lucky breaks.

"Luck was on our side, I'll take it any way I can get it," Irabor said. "Sloppy, ugly, beautiful, it doesn't matter. A win is a win. 2 and 0, onto the next one."

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