Any die-hard Badger fan remembers the blown call from when the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team lost to Duke in the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship Game.
With just under two minutes remaining in the game and the Badgers trailing by just five, refs called the ball out of bounds on Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig. Refs immediately grouped together and decided to look at the play closer on the monitor.
Despite the fact that the ball was clearly touched by Duke forward Justise Winslow, officials did not overturn the call and awarded the ball to the Blue Devils. Duke would score on the ensuing possession and ultimately win the game, 68–63.
Just days later, NCAA Vice President Dan Gavitt stated that the call was, in fact, incorrect, potentially costing Wisconsin the game and the championship.
While Wisconsin fans have a right to be upset about the loss, the refs’ error is one of a number of major blown calls in sports. Blown calls are fairly common in sports thanks to simple human error, but there have been several notable calls/no calls in UW athletics in recent years. With that, let’s take a look at a few:
2011 — Big Ten Football Championship Game
In the inaugural Big Ten Football Championship Game, Wisconsin led the Michigan State Spartans by a field goal with 1:37 to go in the game. Wisconsin sent out punter Brad Nortman on fourth down, giving the Spartans a chance to tie or win the game on the ensuing possession.
During the punt, however, Nortman got nicked by a Spartan defender after getting the punt off and dramatically fell to the ground. Nortman’s performance got the officials to throw a flag and give the Badgers an automatic first down, allowing Wisconsin to run out the clock and win the game, 42–39.
With the win, the Badgers got an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl, where they would lose to the Oregon Ducks, 45–38.
2013 — Bizarre loss to Arizona State football
In an early-season game against Arizona State, the No. 20 Badgers trailed the Sun Devils with less than a minute to go, but had an opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal. Badger quarterback Joel Stave rolled out to his left and took a knee, setting up the field goal opportunity inside the 20-yard line.
This is where the confusion began.
Players from both teams stood around confused, and ASU players even dove onto the ball. Officials did not stop the clock when this happened, however, and the clock ran out before the Badgers were able to get another snap off.
Stave and the rest of the team tried to argue the call, but the officials left the field, leaving Wisconsin on the wrong side of a 32–30 loss.
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2015 — Final Four NCAA Tournament Game
In the Final Four game just before the loss to Duke in the championship, Wisconsin benefited from a late blown call against the seemingly unbeatable Kentucky Wildcats.
Wisconsin trailed by two with less than three minutes left in regulation when Badger forward Nigel Hayes air-balled a short shot in front of the hoop as the shot clock expired. Hayes grabbed his own air-ball and put up another shot that managed go in, but it was clear that the basket shouldn’t have counted.
Kentucky’s players immediately signaled for a travel, probably not realizing that it was also a shot-clock violation, but officials did not stop play and the game stood tied at 60. Wisconsin would go on to beat Kentucky 71–64, ending the Wildcats’ perfect season one game short of a championship.
2019 — Targeting call against safety Eric Burrell
This is the call that is probably most fresh on the minds of Badger fans.
Despite this play being overshadowed by the targeting penalty and ejection of Reggie Pearson Jr. just a few plays later, this targeting call was much more controversial in terms of officiating.
In a blowout win over Michigan earlier this season, safety Eric Burrell went in for the tackle on Wolverine quarterback Dylan McCaffrey, who decided to slide. With the slide, Burrell inadvertently had helmet-to-helmet contact with McCaffrey, drawing a flag from the officials and resulting in an ejection of Burrell for supposedly targeting the quarterback.
While this play had no real impact on the outcome of the game, the call was definitely a mistake in the eyes of many, including several NFL players.
Looking at the blown calls presented here, it’s clear that the mistakes of officials can go either way depending on the luck of each side on any given night. Unfortunately, human error exists in officiating and will continue to exist so long as referees are human, which may not be the case in the future.