Ohio State AD Gene Smith shared his anger over officiating in Fiesta Bowl

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah knocks the ball from the grasp of Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross in the third quarter Saturday night. The Buckeyes scored on the resulting fumble, but the call was overturned on replay review and ruled an incompletion. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The head of Ohio State’s athletic department was unhappy with some of the officiating in the Buckeyes’ loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

In a text message exchange with a Yahoo! Sports reporter late Saturday, Gene Smith said he was “pissed” about an overturned touchdown by safety Jordan Fuller late in the third quarter.

Fuller had scooped up a possible fumble from wide receiver Justyn Ross, then ran about 30 yards into the end zone, a score that was to position the Buckeyes ahead at the time by at least a point.

But following a video review, the officials overturned the original call, ruling that the pass to Ross had been incomplete, igniting a flurry of controversy on social media and fan message boards.

Smith’s frustration with the ruling referenced a tweet from Terry McAulay, a former longtime NFL referee, that contended the fumble should not have been overturned.

“There is absolutely no way replay should have reversed,” McAulay wrote in his tweet. “’Indisputable video evidence’ is simply not there.”

Smith, the Buckeyes’ athletic director, noted in his message with Yahoo: “Terry McAulay is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!” He added, “Feel free to share how pissed I am.”

Just got a text from Ohio State AD Gene Smith: "Terry McAulay is 100-percent correct!!! Unreal!!" He added: "Feel free to share how pissed I am."

— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) December 29, 2019

When reached by The Dispatch on Sunday, Smith declined further comment.

Replay of the sequence showed Ross grabbing a pass from quarterback Trevor Lawrence with both hands, then turning toward the sideline to run before it was knocked out of his grasp by cornerback Jeff Okudah, prompting the ball to land on the grass at StateFarm Stadium, where it was scooped up by Fuller.

Fiesta Bowl referee Ken Williamson mentioned after the game, according to a pool report, that they determined it was not a catch because Ross never had complete possession. An incomplete pass negated the fumble.

“We had a lot of good looks on it,” Williamson said. “We put on fast motion and slow motion. The player did not complete the process of the catch, so, therefore, the pass was incomplete.”

When the pool reporter followed up to note that Ross had taken several steps, Williamson reiterated to note that their ruling was the correct one.

“After the video, instant replay in the stadium as well as back at the video center, they both looked at it slow and fast and they determined when he moved, the ball was becoming loose in his hands and he did not complete the process of the catch,” Williamson said.

Williamson was the referee on a crew of officials from the Southeastern Conference that were assigned to work the College Football Playoff semifinal game.

Following the overturned fumble return, Clemson was forced to punt, handing possession to Ohio State, though the Buckeyes would go three-and-out on their following drive and not regain the lead until later in the fourth quarter.

The sequence was among the more-scrutinized plays from the game, including a targeting penalty against nickel cornerback Shaun Wade in the first half that led to his ejection.

Buckeyes coach Ryan Day was measured in his approach in his postgame news conference when he assessed some of the rulings from the officials that followed replay review.

“I'm probably too emotional to really talk about those,” Day said. “I'll have to look at the film and see what that was. But I know there were some plays that were called on the field and then overturned, and when they overturn it, there has to be undisputable evidence. If that's what they deemed it was, it's going to be something we'll have to take a look at.

“The thing about those plays were certainly that the catch that was returned for a touchdown was such a huge play in the game.”

For his role in the controversial fumble return, a potential momentum-shifting play that would have given the Buckeyes a lead late in the third quarter, Fuller thought it was a catch, allowing him to scoop it and score.

“I’m not paid to be a ref,” he said, “but it looked like he caught it to me. But I’m not paid to do that — I’m not even paid to play football.”