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COLLINS: Frustration of Penn State fans should be with bad calls, not alleged crooked ref

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State fans are fuming at referee John O'Neill and his Big Ten crew.
  • Some fans have started a petition to have O'Neill and his crew fired.
  • Some PSU fans believe O'Neill and his crew are unfair in their calls against PSU.
Some Penn State football fans are not happy with the way their team is being treated by the officials.

Each of the last three days, I’ve received a similar e-mail.

Over that same span, someone has tagged my Twitter account with the same link.

“You should write about this petition,” one writer commanded.

Now, I’m going to write about it. Be careful what you wish for.

Of course, I was familiar with the petition. A Penn State fan — angered as he should be with the reversal of tight end Pat Freiermuth’s would-be, should-be touchdown in Saturday’s 17-12 win at Iowa that was overturned by what can only be attributed to as an act of incompetence — submitted a petition to Change.org requesting the NCAA “Fire Referee John O’Neill and His Crew.”

O’Neill was in charge of the on-field officials that night, and as chance would have it, he was the focus of fan frustration in the past.

Top three of infamous calls: If the call against Freiermuth — replays appear to clearly show him stretch over the goal line before his knee hit the Kinnick Stadium turf — isn’t the most infamous replay decision in Penn State’s football history, it’s top three.

The two others: the Matt Lehman stretch over the goal line that was overturned against Nebraska in 2012; the interception by Ohio State linebacker Von Bell that replay showed blatantly hit the ground before bounding into his arms, a play that was reviewed and, laughably, confirmed as an interception.

O’Neill was on the field for all three of those reviews. Which, I mean, is quite the coincidence, at the very best.

Penn State fans don’t forget that.

“John O’Neill and his team of officials have missed multiple calls that have led to Penn State losses as well as the losses of touchdowns,” wrote fan Jordan Knepper, author of the petition. “Whether through reviewed plays or lack of reviewing, their calls have been both wrong and inconsistent. At this level of play, such poor officiating should be unacceptable and these referees are not performing at the level they should be. They should be relieved of their duties.”

When I started writing this column, about 14,700 people signed the petition.

Just before I finished, that number rose to 15,051.

Wonder if any of them asked themselves if they were being completely fair.

Surprising facts: Let’s make this much clear: John O’Neill’s crew isn’t getting fired. Not by the NCAA. Not by the Big Ten, which actually employs him. Not even if this petition gets a million signatures.

Officials are made men and women to the conferences that sign their paychecks. They’re untouchables. Even their obvious mistakes are hardly ever discussed again publicly. There’s no punishment discussed, no admonishment given.

Every official makes mistakes. Penn State fans would have to prove O’Neill is intentionally making mistakes to harm Penn State’s chances of winning. And, that he’s doing it with some regularity.

You might be surprised to learn the Nittany Lions, of all teams, would have a difficult time proving O’Neill is out to put the screws to them.

By my count, O’Neill was the referee for 15 games involving Penn State dating back to the 2010 season. The Nittany Lions are 9-6 in those games.

In the last 4½ seasons, they’re 6-1 with O’Neill wearing the white cap. The only loss was a 39-38 defeat at Ohio State in 2017, when the Nittany Lions gave up two touchdowns in the last five minutes. The biggest gripe Penn State fans could have had with O’Neill during that comeback was that he couldn’t rush Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Also in those 15 games, Penn State won the penalty battle eight times, which seems about right. They were assessed 80 yards in penalties Saturday against Iowa, to just 5 for the Hawkeyes, and that was easily the biggest disparity between the Lions and their opponent. To be fair, plenty of those penalties the crew called on Penn State against the Hawkeyes were fairly obvious.

Was O’Neill trying to help the Buckeyes when his crew hit Ohio State for 79 yards worth of penalties in the 2017 game? Or, when they whistled Pittsburgh for a whopping 116 penalty yards against the Lions in 2018?

System needs tweaks: Big Ten officials called the Freiermuth ruling “a judgement call” and said that, while it reviews certain calls when asked, they don’t comment on them publicly.

Penn State officials asked for an assessment of that call from the conference, but head coach James Franklin wouldn’t discuss what he was told by the Big Ten, probably for the same reason he wouldn’t discuss the officiating Saturday night: “It wouldn’t do any good.”

Suffice to say, if the conference admitted there was an error or, for some reason, stood by the result of the review, Franklin wouldn’t be happy either way. And shouldn’t be.

Look, bad calls are going to happen. Sometimes, they’re going to go against your team. Sometimes, they’re going to come in big spots. Sometimes, they’re going to cost you a game. All that is true of missed calls, too.

It’s an imperfect system run by imperfect people. The review process badly needs an overhaul; perhaps a rule change that would cut replays off after one minute because, if you don’t see enough in a minute to overturn your call, then there’s hardly conclusive evidence you should do so.

It’s fair to argue that O’Neill is a terrible official and his crew makes terrible calls, because those decisions against Nebraska, Ohio State and Iowa were brutal. No other way to put it. But it’s not fair to say he’s blatantly targeting Penn State in an attempt to aid and abet the Nittany Lions’ opponents.

If he is, the numbers say he’s a worse cheater than he is a referee.