Most Georgia high school football fans have seen the play.
In the Class AAA state championship game between Peach County and Calhoun, Peach County receiver Noah Whittington caught a pass at the Calhoun 5-yard line, took at least two full steps and leaped toward the end zone with his arm stretched out across the goal line, ball in hand. When he landed, the ball popped loose, which prompted the game official to rule the pass incomplete.
The play happened on fourth-and-8, with Peach County trailing 10-6 and 3:33 left in the game. Instead of a potential go-ahead touchdown, Peach County turned the ball over on downs.
The apparent missed call left Peach County fans outraged. Fans watching the game on Georgia Public Broadcasting TV or every person who was at Mercedes-Benz Stadium had a good, high definition look at the replay. But Georgia High School Association rules do not allow for replay, so what the official saw outweighed what thousands of fans across the state saw.
The call stood, sending an outcry throughout the state for the GHSA to adopt replay reviews for state football finals.
And that outcry might be gaining traction.
“You never want to rule anything out,” GHSA executive director Dr. James R. Hines Jr. said. “The technology exists, and it would be shortsighted not to consider (replay review).”
There’s a lot to consider. The technology is available, but there are a wide range of factors that come into play: What plays are reviewed? How is it decided when to review? How will game officials be used and trained? Who provides the technology? Who sits in a replay booth? And who foots the cost?
GHSA associate director Ernie Yarbrough, who serves as coordinator of officiating, said no committee within the association has ever brought up the use of replay review for football. Six or seven years ago, however, replay review was discussed by the basketball committee, but those discussions stalled.
“We didn’t feel we had the technology required to do it at the time,” Yarbrough said. “And there would have been a training process for officials that would have had to take place.”
If a committee within the GHSA is able to hash out the details, replay review for state title games is possible. The National Federation of High Schools — of which the GHSA is a member — allows replay review so long as a member association submits a proposal for approval. Earlier this year, the NFHS approved the Minnesota State High School League’s request for replay review, and the league was able to implement it in time for this season’s semifinals and championship games. In doing so, Minnesota became the first state in the nation to use a replay system for high school football.
While there’s currently no GHSA committee drafting a replay review proposal for NFHS approval, the play in the Peach County game, along with other questionable calls, could lead to such action.
The Georgia Athletic Officials Association certainly wouldn’t be opposed to a proposal.
“I would always want to use every means available to get the call right,” said W. Alan Smith, Georgia Athletic Officials Association president and executive director.
In the case of the MSHSL, it had been using replay for basketball and hockey championship games, so there was precedent for implementation. Add that the semifinals and championship games are played at U.S. Bank Stadium — home of the Minnesota Vikings — and the MSHSL decided it had the means to draft a proposal for the NFHS.
“We kept it simple,” said MSHSL associate director Bob Madison, who is responsible for the league’s football operations. “We talked about it as a league, and we all agreed that it’d be a good idea to try it.”
In the MSHSL’s proposal that became NFHS-approved, replay review would be used in three instances: 1) scoring plays; 2) turnovers; 3) the final two minutes. In addition to the six officials calling the game, there would be three replay review officials — one on the field, who is charting each play and communicating with game officials, and two in the booth. There is no challenge system.
Technology was provided by Bloomington Educational Cable Television for the semifinals and local Channel 45 (KSTC) for the finals. Madison said that among the hundreds of plays eligible for review, only a handful were reversed.
Overall, he viewed the experiment as a success.
“It was fantastic,” Madison said. “It worked as well as it possibly could.”
Madison said the biggest hitch came when replay review officials mistakenly reviewed a play that didn’t fall within the criteria.
“It wasn’t a scoring play, or a change of possession and it didn’t happen in the final two minutes,” Madison said. “They had reviewed it and were ready to reverse the call, but then they realized they weren’t supposed to review it. The replay review official on the field wasn’t sure how to relay that to the sideline official so he could notify the crowd. We learned there that you have to tell the crowd that the play was not reviewable, but we didn’t say that.
“That was our one mistake in all of the games we looked at.”
If applying the NFHS-approved rules for MSHSL’s replay review to Whittington’s catch for Peach County, Madison said the entire play would have been reviewed. Before the catch, there is visual evidence that Whittington stepped out of bounds and came back in while running his route, making him an ineligible receiver. It is unclear whether the Calhoun defender forced him out.
That means a review of the play, under Georgia rules, would have resulted in a 15-yard penalty from the previous spot, making it fourth-and-23 from the Calhoun 36. If the replay officials had deemed that Whittington was forced out, the completion would have stood.
Bob Colgate, who oversees football for the NFHS, said he expects the athletic association for New Jersey to apply for replay review for next season, and possibly those of Alabama and Hawaii.
Each state association granted approval gets three years to experiment and must report all data back to the NFHS. The MSHSL will present its replay review data from this season at a January football rules committee meeting in Indianapolis.
While the data could be used to further advance the technology to other states, having the NFHS mandate replay rules is less likely.
“Not all states have the same resources,” Colgate said. “That’s got to be taken into account.”
It remains to be seen if the GHSA will one day present the NFHS with a proposal. If it does, Colgate has some advice.
“Keep it simple,” he said. “We’ve had this game for a long time and have functioned without (replay review). But I understand the technology is there, and if it will make the game better to officiate and administer, we’ll take a look at it.”
Peach County, meanwhile, is trying to get past the moment, but it hasn’t been easy. School officials will meet with GHSA officials Monday to file a formal appeal. Fans are clamoring for co-state champions or reversing the call and bringing the teams back to play the final three minutes, all knowing deep down that what’s done probably is done.