Windsor: Wayne State physicist says Michigan-OSU refs wrong on spot
It will go down as “The Spot.” Images of whether officials got it right are still circulating on the Internet.
As are stories about referee allegiances and whether Jim Harbaugh should’ve been fined for calling them out and if Michigan’s football program will look back on what happened Saturday in Columbus and laugh, because it slipped into the College Football Playoff anyway.
We’ll be talking about last week’s Michigan-Ohio State game for years. But mostly we will remember the spot in double overtime, and whether Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett advanced to the edge of the white paint that marked the 15-yard line on fourth down-and-1.
Game officials thought he did, as did all of Buckeye Nation. Harbaugh thought he did not, and vehemently complained during his postgame news conference.
Well, a nuclear physicist at Wayne State agrees with U-M’s coach. And he thinks physics and trigonometry would have proven both of them right.
Now, full disclosure, Bill Llope, the physicist in question, is a big football fan. He graduated from U-M. He did doctoral work in New York, post-doctoral work at Michigan State, and spent two decades at Rice University in Houston as a teacher and researcher.
His heart, however, never left Ann Arbor.
That said, when he agreed to break down the mathematical and chemical problems — yes, chemical, bear with me — of determining a spot on a football field, he promised, “I’m going to be all about the science.”
►Jamie's blog: Does U-M 'deserve' a CFP spot? It's tricky
Then he chuckled.
And I chuckled; because when it comes to U-M’s global reach, it’s essentially six degrees of separation.
As Llope sees it — and he was watching as intently as everyone else in America — there are two bits of physics that make determining the placement of a football difficult. The first is called optical error. Sometimes this is referred to as parallax, and of the two issues, it is rather straightforward.
“Let’s say you and someone else are driving in a car,” Llope explained. “You are right in front of the speedometer. You see you are going 60. Someone else is in the passenger seat. They will see you going at a slightly slower speed, because of their angle. They see a different answer than someone who is straight on.”
In Astronomy, said Llope, this is accounted for with math. In football, it’s accounted for by placing judges along the side of the field in hopes that they align themselves with wherever the play ends. But it’s not easy — in a game that moves in frenetic bursts — to align your view perfectly. Nor is there time to pull out an advanced calculator.
If the referee is behind the play at all, he is more likely to think the ball advanced further than it did, just as the passenger in the car who reads the speedometer needle slightly askew.
Replays have the same problem. Cameras are rarely stationed even with the ball. They depend on angles, mostly because if a camera truly followed the ball, it would disorient the viewer. In some cases, this only confuses officials further, which is why there is often not enough evidence to overturn the placement of the ball.
The second obstacle to finding true ball placement, said Llope, is known as the “flash lag effect.” This is where the chemistry comes in.
Think of it this way, he said: “If somebody is running left to right, the runner appears farther right than he actually is. This is because your brain is extrapolating where that runner will be.”
Llope said this is an evolutionary tic that has to do with information processing. It’s possible, then, that the side judges thought Barrett plowed ahead more than he did.
Both parallax and flash lag, said Llope, were working against Michigan on that play because there was no perfect angle.
“I thought he was a few inches short,” he said. “But again, I’m an alum.”
He’s also a scientist, and the only way to know for sure, he said, is to break down the replays frame-by-frame, do the trigonometry, and make a more nuanced decision.
The hash marks would make this possible, he said. Demands of the viewing public, however, make it impossible.
No fan wants to wait for a Zapruder film-like study. Most have work Monday.
“Physicists love doing this,” he said. “But in the end, it’s academic.”
Referees didn’t have enough information to correct what may have been a faulty spot — though don’t blame the refs, blame evolution.
“Michigan put themselves into that situation,” he said. “They fumbled on the goal line. Threw interceptions …”
On he went, the fan in him silencing the scientist.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.