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My Take: Sun Belt needs to step up its officiating game
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Georgia Southern scrapped and clawed its way to a triple-overtime game that it absolutely had to have on Saturday. There was plenty of drama and the pros and cons of the night will lead to much discussion about the Eagles moving forward.


But let’s take a quick timeout to talk about the one thing in Saturday’s game that was only slightly less noticeable than the tropical storm dumping buckets of rain onto the turf at Paulson Stadium.


The officiating didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It stuck out like a broken and dislocated thumb that the television cameras and broadcast team quickly cut away from while finding anything else to talk about. In a game that was vital for the bowl hopes of both Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina, neither team could have been knocked for letting some of its focus drift away from the field and towards an officiating crew that couldn’t do much of anything correctly.


While both teams were intense and fought hard throughout the contest, nothing ever appeared to cross over the line from competitive to malicious. Unfortunately for both teams and anyone trying to follow along with the course of action, the game was officiated with all the angst and pickiness of a middle school English teacher on their last nerve. A total of 14 penalties were called - not including offsetting and declined flags - for a total of 141 yards. And while neither of those numbers are especially egregious, it was the fact that the refs infused themselves into every important moment of the game that left a sour note on the day.


It didn’t take long for the battle between Georgia Southern’s blue and white and Coastal’s teal and white to be crashed by the yellow of the officials’ flags. The very first play from scrimmage drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on CCU offensive lineman Seth Harrell.


The whistles and flags only got looser from there. 


After Georgia Southern went up 3-0 on its first drive, the first play of Coastal’s next series appeared to be a clean interception by Georgia Southern’s Kindle Vildor. The preseason All-Sun Belt cornerback engaged in typical hand-fighting, but clearly had a bead on the throw and a direct line to the interception. That’s not how the officials saw things. A holding call negated the interception and awarded the Chanticleers a first down.


On the very next play, Georgia Southern lost an emerging defensive star as safety Kenderick Duncan was called for targeting on a quarterback scramble. No flag was thrown in the course of play and - once the action was stopped for further review - Duncan appeared to make first contact with his shoulder upon CCU quarterback Bryce Carpenter’s shoulder while both dove to the ground before any head-to-head contact was made. But that wasn’t how the officials saw it, and Duncan was done for the day.


On the play after that, offsetting personal fouls were called on Georgia Southern’s Jay Bowdry and Coastal’s T’Qele Holmes. The pair tied up and were fighting for control, but nothing about the interaction warranted a flag on either end.


Most of the second and third quarters played out without intervention by the zebras, but what should have been a routine break became a moment that has been documented around the nation over the last three days


At the end of the third quarter, the Eagle players did what just about every team in America does heading into the final period of play. Players held up four fingers and - with the Paulson Stadium speakers blaring out music - started to jump around in an effort to pump up themselves and the crowd.


Coastal Carolina players responded in kind, also working themselves into a frenzy. 


The teams did work their way onto the field, but never got within 30 yards of one another. There were no gestures towards the other team and no opposing players were ever close enough to each other for any sort of taunting or threats to be issued.


So - obviously - in the minds of the Sun Belt officiating crew, that was grounds for pinning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on literally every player in uniform.


That penalty included those who never left the sideline. It included those who weren’t dancing. Most importantly, it included Bowdry, Holmes and Harrell. Once saddled with a second unsportsmanlike penalty due to - I can only assume - the officials’ distaste for fun and revelry, those three were disqualified from the rest of the contest.


All due respect to the sometimes-taxing job of maintaining the desired environment for competition, that was an inexcusable lapse in judgement that altered a vital game for both teams. It was a media timeout… going into the fourth quarter of a close and crucial game… under conditions better suited for the Weather Channel than competitive football.


But that officiating crew saw fit to interject itself as aggressively as possible. And they weren’t done yet.


Georgia Southern escaped with a nerve-wracking triple-overtime win, but would currently be sitting at 2-4 on the season if not for the benefit of replay review.


Faced with 4th-and-5 on the CCU 20 in the first overtime and already having surrendered a touchdown, the Eagles went for broke and quarterback Shai Werts lofted a pass into the end zone. Mark Michaud hauled it in for what appeared to be a potential tying score. The nearest official confidently waved it off as an incomplete pass, signaling that Michaud had landed out of bounds.


A replay showed that Michaud landed in bounds, nearly three feet from the sideline. Luckily for the Eagles, a review overturned the initial call and they were able to pull out a win two series later.


As for the officials and the circus they created around the game, there isn’t much of a defense. Everyone has bad days. Every official misses a call here and there. It’s the nature of the business.


But Saturday’s officiating - as a whole - was a far greater mess than anything the tropical weather was able to produce. Some calls were questionable. Some were flat-out missed. And some were apparently conjured up from the ‘Footloose’ universe where dancing is a crime.


The Sun Belt has taken great pride over the last few years in growing its brand and increasing its postseason presence. 


All of the schools have done the work to live up to the league’s growing stature. Now it’s the Sun Belt’s turn to make sure it can provide the same growth and quality when it comes to its teams getting the quality of officiating that they deserve.


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