After a half-season hiatus, we're happy to announce the return of the Zebra Report: "Hey Ref!" edition, in which my old man answers your questions about all things in black and white stripes.
Dr. Jerry McGee, aka Pops, was a college football official for nearly three decades, working more than 400 games, including two Rose Bowls and the 2009 BCS championship. Just before that game, and his retirement, I wrote this in ESPN The Magazine and this when I shadowed his crew in that title game. Just last year he answered reader questions about rules and refs and now he's back to do it again.
If you have your own questions for Pops, shoot them to me at HeyRefESPN@yahoo.com and we'll try to hit them in a future edition.
Here are your questions and Pops' answers.
I'm a high school back judge. On a play like the Eric Reid interception in the LSU Tigers-Alabama Crimson Tide game, where two guys come down with the ball like that, can you walk us through what the official is watching to make that call? -- Jason G., Austin, Texas
On the play, the first thing everyone wants to talk about is simultaneous catch. But the truth is that almost never happens. Too many things have to happen -- two guys with full possession, feet hitting the ground at the same time, etc. But on the play the first thing you are looking for is making sure no one has been fouled. Then you make sure the ball doesn't hit the ground.
From there, you have to resist blowing the play dead. You have to let it play out. I think that's the most common mistake for a lot of officials, getting in a hurry. If they had blown that play dead one second too soon it would have gone to the offense and that would have been a mess.
Again, let it play out. Give your eyes a second to digest what happened, and then make the call. They did that on Saturday night and the replay backed them up. Steve Shaw and that crew did an amazing job that night.
Watching the LSU-Alabama game, I had two questions. One, do refs get nervous before a big regular-season game like that? Two, how are games like that assigned? Is it like bowl games and it goes to the highest-rated crew? -- Linda, Shreveport, La.
The pregame atmosphere for an official is the same as it is for a player. Big games certainly feel bigger, you are excited, you have the butterflies, all of that. But once the ball is kicked off, it really feels like any other game. For the players I think it takes a little longer, four or five plays, but once everyone hits their normal game rhythm it all feels very normal.
As for game assignments, that game was likely assigned well before the season started. In the ACC and Big East we always got our schedules in midsummer. Some conferences do like the NFL and assign games in segments, like month-to-month, but not many. Listen, they knew in March that LSU-Alabama would be a huge game, just like we already know it will be a huge game next year. So you typically see more experienced guys in those games. But I can tell you this, for the teams playing, no matter who they are, the biggest game in America is the one they're in, so they need to feel like they are getting good officials every week.
When there's a situation like the Pac-12 officials had after the Stanford Cardinal-USC Trojans game, when Lane Kiffin was so vocal about the officiating that he was fined, how awkward a situation does that create for the next crew coming in for a Trojans game? And how can it not affect how USC will be called? -- Tripp, Long Beach, Calif.
Something like that doesn't alter how the game is called. A good official doesn't get caught up in personalities or headlines or any of that. The next game is just the next game. I think the Pac-12 guys were probably surprised that he said the things he said. And the crew that worked USC's next game surely went over it in their pregame meeting, just a reminder that there might be a little extra emotion coming from the sideline.
But stuff like that should never change how you call a game. It might be hard to grasp that officials don't enter a game with the same emotion that fans or the teams do, but that's how it should be done.
This year I feel like I've seen more running backs grabbing defenders' face masks. I know that would be a flag if the defender does it, but is it not a penalty when an offensive player does it? -- Eric, Southern California
I've noticed that too, Eric. And yes, it should be a foul. A runner's hand might brush over a face mask incidentally, but he can't grab it. I've actually had a situation where we had to throw two face-mask flags on the same play. The offensive guy grabbed the other guy's face mask so the defensive player returned the favor.
I still can't believe the officials in the Toledo-Syracuse game (Sept. 24) blew that extra-point call that gave Syracuse the game. Were you ever lined up under the goalpost? If so, how do you make the call in that position and is hard? -- Jeremy, Toledo
On field goals and extra points the field judge and back judge stand at the base of each upright and look straight up the post. You make the call based on where the ball travels in relation to your head. It seems pretty simple, but the truth is that it can be a tough assignment, particularly when the ball is coming in at an angle, which happens a lot with the soccer-style kickers. And you hate to say the sun gets in your eyes, but it certainly can. Your concentration has to be absolute.
But we also have other duties right up until the snap of the ball, like counting the number of players on the field and looking at formations. I will say, one thing that has really helped is when they extended the height of the uprights. Those shorter, high school-style goalposts made it a much tougher call.
When the officials asks for the game clock to be reset to a different time, how is that determined? Is someone keeping a separate clock somewhere to keep track? -- Wahoo Jim
This goes to my previous comment about having other duties on each play. The field judge, side judge and back judge, the guys that are lined up downfield, are also responsible for tracking the clocks. The back judge usually tracks the game clock and the side judge tracks the play clock. They'll also keep it on their watches.
With the game clock, you really have to keep an eye on it after a dead ball. The person running the scoreboard clock is in the press box and sometimes gets confused. Most of the time it's a fellow official or a retired official doing it, but at some stadiums it's a person who does it for NFL games and might not fully understand the college rules.
Then sometimes the scoreboard just goes out. I did a seminar with some young officials a few years ago and talked about keeping the game clock on my watch down on the field. They kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, that's OK, the scoreboard clock never goes out." I told them they were right. It had only happened to me once. In the Orange Bowl.
Who was the fastest player you were ever on the field with? -- Sal, Kokomo, Ind.
I'll give you three. James Jett of the West Virginia Mountaineers, Percy Harvin of the Florida Gators, and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The same Orange Bowl game in which the clock went out, Ismail turned the corner on a reverse and accelerated so fast that I nearly got all turned around ... and I had a 20-yard head start.