Back on the first Pac-12 Conference football media day in late July, USC coach Lane Kiffin was asked about the new college rule that would take points off the board if a showboating player acts out on the way to the end zone.
Sighed Kiffin, “I’m sure somebody around the country will give us a lesson to learn from.”
Little did Kiffin know the teachable moment would happen right on his sideline, and it would reverberate all the way to the casinos in Las Vegas. The final play of the Utah-USC game Saturday night didn’t fit the exact profile of the new rule, but officials apparently had to sort out whether there was an appropriate application of it.
Let’s start at the beginning of this wacko saga that’s had Nevada sportsbook operators buzzing. Last week, for the first Pac-12 Conference game between Utah and USC, the betting line wavered from 9.5 points to 8 favoring USC, depending on where and when you placed the bet.
Fast-forward to the final play of the game, on which Utah, down 17-14, attempted a field goal that would have tied it. The Trojans blocked it and ran it back for a touchdown as the clock expired, and for the moment, it appeared they had won 23-14. USC faithful couldn’t wait to order another round.
But, as Torin Harris — just to add to the intrigue, he’s a sophomore from Las Vegas — sprinted down the right side of the field, a wave of Trojans left the bench and covered that side of the field in celebration.
It didn’t impact the play, but normally, the defensive team can’t have 45 guys on the field.
The Pac-12 officials had their own fumble on the play. (And remember, the new officiating administration was implemented to avoid such stuff.)
After huddling, the game referee announced over the microphone, “Unsportsmanlike conduct on the USC bench. By rule, we will decline that penalty. The game is over.” He waved his arms in the “decline” motion and didn’t signal a touchdown. A moment later, the public-address announcer named the final score as 17-14.
At 11:03 p.m., an e-mail from the Pac-12 hit my inbox, quoting Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira on the application of the new rule. He said it doesn’t apply to substitutes, so the infraction was of the dead-ball variety and wouldn’t affect the touchdown. A dead-ball foul would have been assessed on the next play, and with time expired, there was no next play. He said the officials called it a touchdown. Voila — it’s now a 23-14 final.
The Pac-12 says the officials on the field knew that all along, but that they didn’t communicate it properly. The league followed up with an e-mail late Sunday afternoon, quoting the new coordinator of officiating, Tony Corrente, as saying officials on the field made the call correctly but that miscommunication with the press box resulted in the widespread belief that it was a 17-14 final.
Now to the casinos. Anybody with a Utah ticket, taking the points, was a winner immediately after the game on the basis of a 17-14 score and could have gleefully cashed that ticket. Meanwhile, you can see USC ticket-holders cursing the Trojans sideline, and either tearing up the ticket or tossing it.
But with the “adjusted” score of 23-14, suddenly those who had USC giving nine or less did no worse than a push.
For some, that meant victory after all. But maddenly for others, still a loss. It turns out Vegas casinos have varying house rules on such snafus. Most don’t recognize such “adjusted” scores, but some do. Mirage sportsbook manager Jeff Stoneback told me his place doesn’t recognize such a change in final score and paid off only on the 17-14 outcome. It’s in the house rules on a wall, and there’s a sign advising bettors to “ask any supervisor” if there’s a question about house rules. (But how many guys with a fistful of cash in one hand and a tallboy in the other do that?)
Jay Kornegay, who operates the Hilton sportsbook, said his casino initially paid Utah winners, then stopped doing that and paid USC winners. Hilton house rules stipulate that any changes in score must take place on game day so anything happening after midnight means reverting to the original score. But the new score takes precedence if it’s changed in time.
“It’s a very uncomfortable, unusual situation for the bettor and us,” Kornegay told me Monday. “It wasn’t a good scenario. We’re just trying to do the right thing.”
I asked Stoneback if he had some angry USC bettors on his hands. “Obviously, a few people are going to be upset,” he said. “But when you see the house rules, most people are fine with that.”
I’d imagine the USC bettors would really be upset when they find out the Pac-12 officials never intended the final score to be 17-14, but 23-14.
It’s one more strange moment for the gamblers. Stoneback says another little-used house rule at most casinos is that a game must go 55 minutes before it’s official in the sportsbooks. Last weekend, the Marshall-West Virginia and Western Michigan-Michigan games were halted by lightning before then, so tickets had to be refunded.
“I can’t imagine anything else happening,” said Stoneback. “It’s been an odd year.”
It was also odd at Husky Stadium Saturday, when Hawaii was about to kick a late extra point and cover the point spread against Washington. When the Huskies blocked it and Desmond Trufant ran it back for a two-point play, it was people with UW tickets that collected.
A year ago in the Stanford-Arizona State game, a Cardinal running back essentially sat down at the ASU 4-yard line on the way to a score that would have covered the spread for Stanford. Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh had instructed his players to do that, so they’d keep the ball and take more time off the clock.
Strange things can happen when you mix your wallet with your sentiments. Lane Kiffin might call that a teachable moment.