Football is a game of Xs and Os, not what-ifs and might-haves. But when your team is the recipient of a blatant blown call, the bitterness of what might have been lingers long after the final horn sounds.
Such was the case in Oneida's Rivalry Thursday showdown with Greenback at Dr. M.E. Thompson Field.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with Oneida clinging to a 38-35 lead, Greenback quarterback Samuel McCloud wound up and threw a deep ball down the left sideline. Oneida cornerback Tanner Sexton drifted over and positioned himself in front of the receiver. But Sexton, who had already intercepted one pass to set up an Oneida touchdown, was shoved from behind and fell to the turf as the receiver snagged the pass and went untouched into the end zone for what turned out to be the game-winning score.
Oneida safety Cole West, trailing the play, held out as his arms in disbelief. Oneida's coaches on the sideline reacted likewise. A resounding "boo" went up from the partisan faithful crowding the bleachers. But there were no flags.
Following the game, Oneida coach Tony Lambert said that he does not question the officiating. But then, understandably, he did just that: "I'm going to have to reevaluate the rule book a little bit," he said. "Someone needs to school me on pass interference."
Yes, someone apparently needed to be schooled on pass interference. But it wasn't the Oneida coach.
Mistakes are a part of football. Coaches make them, players make them, even the ballboys make them. So it's unreasonable to think that officials won't make them, too. Over the course of any game, there are going to be missed calls and wrong calls. Officials do not have the benefit of replay. They have to make split-second decisions and stick by them, for better or worse. On the game's opening kickoff, West returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score and appeared to step out of bounds on the Greenback side of midfield. Observers were split over whether his foot actually came down on the chalk. Greenback fans felt the ball should've been placed at the 45-yard-line. Instead, Oneida was awarded a touchdown. Later, a controversial pass interference call against Oneida allowed the Cherokees to convert a third-and-long and ultimately score a touchdown. Still later, a controversial no-call on what might have been a block-in-the-back allowed Greenback to convert a third-and-very-long that led to another touchdown.
That's the way the games go.
But in a crucial situation in the fourth quarter, when an official has an unobscured view of the play that is unfolding less than 10 yards away from him, some things are so blatant that it's inexcusable to miss them. When two officials have the same view — one from either side — and neither reaches for a flag, the missed call is even more egregious.
Such was the case on last night's final touchdown. It was the kind of missed call that would have earned a reprimand for college officials from any major conference. And well it should have.
It is impossible to say that the game hinged on a single call. There was still half of the fourth quarter remaining. Oneida had an opportunity to regain the lead but couldn't penetrate a tough Greenback defense. By that point in the game, the Cherokees' runners were gashing Oneida's tired defense, and the 'Kees may well have stopped Oneida and gotten the ball back for a game-winning touchdown even if pass interference had been called.
But when your team is on the short end, you can't help but wonder "what if?" And it's unfortunate that a blown call sticks out in what was otherwise a great game — an instant classic — between two good teams with a deep mutual respect for one another.