Oneida wide receiver Ben Lambert clearly picked up a first down on this third down play at South Greene on Friday, November 9, 2018. However, the officials ruled that Lambert was short of the line to gain. One play later, the Indians failed to convert on fourth down after the chains were moved on the South Greene sideline | Sarah Dunlap / IH

It started about three minutes into the third quarter of Oneida’s second round playoff game at South Greene on Friday. The Rebels had scored quickly to start the third quarter, taking an 8-7 lead over the Indians. But Oneida quickly moved the ball into South Greene territory, putting together its best drive of the night after a first half that saw the Indians limited to just one first down and 30 yards of total offense.

After Oneida picked up a first down at South Greene’s 39-yard-line, the game took an interesting twist.

On first down, Colby Boyatt carried the ball off right tackle, picking up two yards. As he attempted to wrestle free from a South Greene defender, he lost one of those yards and went down at the 38-yard-line. The line judge on the right side of the field incorrectly spotted the ball where Boyatt went down, failing to account for his forward progress. 

Ordinarily, a one-yard error on first down wouldn’t much matter. But this was going to be no ordinary series, as it turned out.

After a 2-yard run by Kolby Morgan on second down, quarterback Elijah West found wide receiver Benji Lambert a yard past the first down stick on the third down play. It was evident to everyone assembled that Lambert had a first down. But the line judge, who was not in position to correctly make the spot, erroneously marked Lambert short of the line-to-gain. Instead of first down, it was fourth-and-one.

Oneida head coach Tony Lambert took a time out, protesting the spot of the ball as his offense prepared for the next play. Upstairs in the press box, an officiating supervisor who was on hand to observe the game was irate. “That’s a bad spot!” he said. Then, even more forcefully, “That was a terrible spot! Where was our line judge on that?”

Even the South Greene clock operator turned and said, “Oh, man,” as way of acknowledgement that the officials completely bungled the play.

But things were about to get even more bizarre. On fourth and one, Zach Couch carried the ball off right guard for a 1-yard gain to the 29-yard-line…first down, right?

No. 

Video taken by an Oneida videographer in the press box clearly shows the South Greene chain crew moving the sticks as the play unfolded. And while a clip is placed on the chains at the 5- or 10-yard line to avoid the chains being inadvertently moved, several people from the Oneida side saw the clip being moved by the chain gang. 

After Couch was tackled, the referee looked at the chains and immediately signaled first down for South Greene. As Oneida protested, the officials attempted to reset the chains where they were supposed to be and measure. Not surprisingly, the ball was short of the first down. It was a turnover on downs. 

South Greene would respond by marching down the field to score, building its lead to 16-7. 

Meanwhile, officiating miscues continued. In its first round playoff victory over Happy Valley, Oneida used an unbalanced line to catch the Warriors off-guard. The Indians attempted to do the same thing against South Greene, but the line judge who had blown multiple ball-spots on the doomed series in the third quarter was having none of it.

Oneida was twice on the receiving end of erroneous penalties for illegal formations as it attempted the unbalanced look on the offensive line. The first one didn’t matter much; the Indians scored on the next play when Boyatt broke free from 20 yards out, cutting South Greene’s lead to 16-14. The second one mattered immensely, however. The Indians stopped the Rebels and got the ball back at their 17-yard-line as the fourth quarter began, with an opportunity to reclaim the lead.

On first down, the second of the penalty flags was thrown for illegal motion. Despite the argument from an incensed Lambert, the call stood. It negated an 8-yard gain on first down, turning what would have been 2nd-and-2 into 1st-and-15. The Indians were ultimately forced to punt the football.

It just kept getting worse. With South Greene facing a 3rd-and-3 at midfield on the ensuing possession, the same line judge threw a flag for offsides. But while the Indians’ left defensive tackle moved, he did not enter the neutral zone, which is required for an encroachment penalty. The Rebels would go on to score, taking a 23-14 lead. 

On the ensuing drive, Oneida moved deep into South Greene territory again. But on first down at South Greene’s 21-yard-line with 4:04 to play, West’s pass into the end zone was intercepted. 

Or was it? A photo by Independent Herald photographer Sarah Dunlap indicated otherwise. While it’s impossible to judge for sure what happened from a single still photograph, the picture appears to show the ball slipping through the hands of the South Greene cornerback as he went to the ground. Several people on the Oneida sideline said the defender didn't have control of the ball as he and Oneida receiver Trace Sexton went to the ground.

There’s no instant replay in high school football, obviously, and the play stood. While the Indians would get a defensive stop and drive back down the field to score in the waning seconds, they were out of time, and the Rebels moved on to the quarterfinals with a 23-21 victory. 

Complains about officiating are a dime a dozen, and poor officiating doesn’t often change the outcome of a game. But complaints are substantiated when there is photographic evidence to back them up, and the film doesn’t lie: Friday’s playoff game at South Greene was poorly officiated.

Interception? A photo snapped from the sideline appears to show the ball slipping free of a South Greene defender during the fourth quarter of the Rebels' win over Oneida on Friday, November 9, 2018 | Sarah Dunlap / IH

Did officiating dictate the outcome? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s no way to know. Certainly, the officials didn’t give up three touchdowns in the second half — the most second half points the Indians gave up all season. The officials didn’t convert South Greene’s pair of two-point conversions, which were the ultimate difference in the game. 

But what might have happened if a third quarter drive into South Greene territory hadn’t been undone by terrible spots? What might have happened if a fourth quarter drive into South Greene territory hadn’t been undone by an interception that wasn’t? What might have happened without the other erroneous penalties that killed an Oneida possession and kept a South Greene touchdown drive alive? 

“I’ve never been one to criticize the officiating but you should’ve been here is all I can say,” Oneida head coach Tony Lambert said after the game. “I don’t apologize for telling the truth. I told the referee, ‘I’ve never had a 15-yard penalty in my life, but I felt like getting one tonight.’ Thank God we didn’t.”

It was an unusually bold statement for the Oneida head coach, who is usually quicker than most to shoulder responsibility for losses. But Lambert wasn’t incorrect, nor were his comments unwarranted.

The Oneida players who had spent the entire season — dating back to the hot practices of late July and the months of conditioning before that — preparing for that moment deserved better. Any team would’ve. A second-round playoff game is a high-stakes game, and high-stakes games deserve the best officials. If the crew officiating Friday’s game was the best there was to offer, TSSAA has serious problems.

As for the issue with the South Greene chain gang, it deserves an investigation by TSSAA. And if nefarious intent is confirmed, South Greene should be appropriately sanctioned. It’s unfortunate when repeated mistakes by officials cloud the outcome of a game, but that’s life — honest mistakes are going to happen. When adults appear to resort to dishonesty in an effort to rip the game from a bunch of teenage kids who are playing their guts out, regardless of what school they’re from or what color they wear, that’s beyond misfortune…it’s infuriating.

While volunteers from the host school have traditionally manned the chains during regular season games, TSSAA long required certified officials for the chains in playoff games. However, the sanctioning body has gone away from that requirement in recent years and has returned to school volunteers for the early rounds of the playoffs. Clearly, TSSAA should return to the use of certified officials to man the chains in all postseason games.

And, perhaps, teams that visit South Greene in the future should watch closely to be sure the chains aren’t being monkeyed with in crucial down-and-distance situations.

From The Pressbox is a weekly sports column by Independent Herald editor Ben Garrett. A print version of this column can be found on Page B1 of the November 15, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.