The Best Bell Game We Ever Lost
October 3, 2015
I closed my eyes and she slipped away. – Boston (1976)
What a game.
The 115th Bell Game was a great contest with momentum shifting back and forth throughout. Michael Ranson was the best player on the field and led Central to a thrilling victory. It was a Wildcat win that will go down as one for the ages if you were wearing blue last night. But for me, and for others wearing red who stayed to watch the game until the bitter end (and shame on you Bulldog fans who left early), it was the one that got away.
From where I sat at about the south 30 yard line on the Centennial side of Dutch Clark Stadium, I had a perfect view of the action (though not the play clock) in the final 18 seconds and I believe the Bulldogs were robbed of one, possibly two, plays. Not because the refs blew a call, but because they didn’t manage the game properly in the final seconds. Overall, the referees called a good game. They may have missed a pass interference penalty in the end zone during the first half but, generally, I thought the refs were pretty solid.
But, something went wrong in the last 10 seconds.
I remember without a doubt (and posted on my live Bell Game blog) the Bulldogs had the ball at the 32 yd line (in Cats territory) with 18 seconds on the clock. Centennial Quarterback, Jake Sanchez, spiked the ball and 16 seconds remained. What happened next turned out to be the last play of the game.
Sanchez dropped back to pass moving to the right and threw a completion near the Central sideline for a 12 yard gain to the 20. The receiver was tackled in bounds. But, there was a defensive penalty. The flag was thrown in the backfield for a personal foul on Central for hitting the QB after he threw the ball. If I remember correctly, Sanchez was shaken up on the play and slow to get back to his feet. I also remember the officials gathering to figure out the penalty and the proper spot. The refs didn’t look like they were in a hurry. Central coaches may have been arguing the call. It was chaotic on the field and the crowd was going crazy. It was clear the Bulldogs had a real chance to steal victory from the jaws of defeat. While the refs gathered to sort things out, Head Coach Mike Palumbo (and, for full disclosure, my friend and classmate at Centennial in the late 80s) and his staff were on the field talking to their players and planning for the next play. The Pueblo Chieftain and maybe other sources said the kicking team was on the field but, to me, it looked like Palumbo and the Dogs were going for one more shot at the end-zone. After that try a kick to send the game to OT.
Then, without any warning, the game was over.
I never heard a whistle. I don’t even remember hearing the referee call the penalty or say “1st down”, although that may have been because for every official announcement the head referee faced the Central (west) side of the field and it was difficult to hear. Even the PA announcer had consistently announced a stirring “First and Goal … BULLDOGS (or WILDCATS)!!!” for every other first and goal. Not this time. The Centennial coaches had no idea the ball was being spotted and the clock was starting. When they got back to the sideline and turned around the game was over. If the clock was ticking there should have been a penalty for too many players (and coaches) on the field. Central players weren’t lined up at the line of scrimmage. I think a handful of Central coaches and players were out on the edge of the field too.
Some of my Centennial friends on Facebook concluded it was a coaching error because the team wasn’t ready to spike the ball and stop the clock. I saw it differently. Centennial had 1st and goal from the 10 (the penalty from the 20 was half the distance). And they should have had a chance to line up before the referees started the clock because of the penalty, because of QB Sanchez being shaken up by the late hit and because of the ensuing chaos on the field. At the very least the Centennial coaches should have been made aware when the refs had figured things out and the ball was being spotted. It seemed like an official timeout. And game officials can’t covertly end their own official timeout to quietly spot the ball and wind the clock. They have to make an announcement and blow a whistle.
Ask some of the Central players who were on the field at the very end. They appeared to be as surprised as anyone when the ref called the game. Slowly they began to realize they wouldn’t need to defend another play and began to erupt into celebration. I think Central’s players and coaches, if they’re being honest, would probably say Centennial deserved another play.
But it wasn’t to be.
The Central players and coaches are to be congratulated for their victory. From my vantage point, the Wildcats played and coached a smart, clean game. I didn’t see any cheap shots or excessive trash talking. It got chippy here and there but the refs and players kept it in check. And I didn’t see any frustration during the game from the Centennial sideline. Certainly not like last year when the officiating was far worse.
It wasn’t until the very end when all the Centennial Assistant Coaches went ballistic. They threw their hats on the field and tossed their clipboards. They ran onto the field to confront the referees and one of the assistant coaches had to be restrained by someone who looked like a Centennial administrator. The Centennial coaches were seething because the referees failed to communicate what was happening on the field. The refs may have followed the “letter of the law” but they failed to observe proper game protocol. With 10 seconds left after a defensive personal foul, the refs needed to take control and let everyone in the stadium know what was going on. But they didn’t. And, as a result, we were all robbed of what could have been. Especially the Centennial student athletes, who played their hearts out and left it all on the field.
The final seconds could have resulted in an incomplete pass or a missed field goal and the same game outcome. But the same seconds might also have resulted in a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. It could have been a moment for Centennial fans like “The Catch” for San Francisco 49er fans, that classic play when Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Dwight Clark at the back of the end-zone to secure a victory in the 1982 NFC Championship Game.
But no….instead, she slipped away.
Ah, the bit about QB Sanchez being shaken-up adds another interesting wrinkle. Was he attended to by the trainers? If so, I believe that the referee is obligated to give the team a “free” time-out since their player was injured on an illegal hit. [Side note: When Frank Leahy was coaching at Notre Dame in the 40s and 50s he was known for teaching his players to fake an injury to stop the clock if the Irish were out of timeouts. The Irish apparently actually practiced falling down injured in practice, and there was a set order in which each player was to play the injured party.]
That aside, and acknowledging that I wasn’t there, I think mistakes were made by both the officials and the coaching staff. The coaching staff certainly should have realized that the game clock was set to start up again once the ball was placed, and they could have taken advantage of the central personal foul by sending in the training staff to check out Sanchez in order to buy some extra time. But the referees should have been telling the Centennial coaching staff to get off the field and warning them that they were going to set the ball and wind the clock. A memorable ending indeed.
I don’t recall if Sanchez was looked at by the trainers or not. I only remember seeing both Sanchez and the Central D-lineman laying on the field next to a yellow flag. Then I remember thinking I had some time to update my blog because it seemed to be an official timeout. Then I looked up and the head ref was holding the ball in the air like it was a decapitated head in game of thrones, declaring game over. No one was in formation. I don’t even think the Central players were all on the field, let alone on-side.
[…] Previous postNext post […]
[…] I attended the game and wrote a recap with my take on the controversial final seconds. […]