Mizzou football’s brutal loss should force change to roughing the kicker rule

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Imagine if this happened in the SEC championship game.

Or in the College Football Playoff.

Or anywhere but here at Faurot Field, where stumbling into new and painful ways to lose games has, over the decades, become a twisted football fetish.

It wouldn’t happen anywhere else, of course. At least not the first time. Because the most insane ways for games to go down the drain are destined to be born here, at the home field of fifth downs and flea kickers and, now, the most bizarre roughing the kicker penalty … ever?

Memo to college football coaches: Show your players the viral snippet from Mizzou’s 21-17 loss to Kentucky, and make sure they know when to ignore their instincts.

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Memo to college football: Fix the wonky wording of the roughing the kicker rule before this happens during a botched punt on a bigger stage.

Let’s be clear here, before we dig in deep. Blaming the officials for Mizzou’s loss on Saturday is a little too convenient. Mizzou could have won this game in all sorts of ways, but the Tigers turned the ball over, went two of 13 on third downs and once again asked a stellar defense to be absolutely perfect instead of just really stinking good. The Tigers were leading in the fourth quarter before things unraveled. Don’t forget that part. And don’t overlook that the Wildcats were penalized 12 times.

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., left, runs past Missouri’s Chad Bailey, right, during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

But the officials who scurried off the field beneath boos did gift Kentucky a first down with a terrible spot on what looked like a third-down stop by Mizzou’s defense early in the third quarter. They also screwed up when they flagged only the Tigers during an in-game sideline skirmish between both teams along the UK sideline. They were correct, however, in overturning UK running back Christopher Rodriguez‘s fumble — he was down when the ball came out — and they were correct in waving off a targeting call that, if called against Mizzou, would have burst black-and-gold blood vessels. All of these moments, of course, would have been mostly forgotten instead of overanalyzed as evidence if college football’s roughing the kicker penalty was not just exposed as a very poorly written rule.

Here’s the most maddening thing about this game’s defining moment. It seems a ridiculous call could have, according to the rule, actually been called correctly. Which means the rule should be changed. The sooner, the better.

The Tigers were trailing by four with 2:25 left in the fourth quarter when their ferocious defense forced a Kentucky punt from the UK 41-yard line. Things got even better for Mizzou when UK’s long snapper sent the ball a mile over the head of Kentucky punter Colin Goodfellow, who scrambled back more than 20 yards to corral the bouncing ball while members of Mizzou’s punt return team, Norris leading the way, rushed to close the gap. Goodfellow had his back to the defense when he picked up the ball, leaving no clue about what he was going to do. He could quickly kick the ball. He could run. He could take a safety. He could throw the ball out of bounds. Who knew? He probably didn’t even know himself. By the time he secured the ball and turned to face the defense, Norris was a half-step away, driving forward in a tackling position. Goodfellow punted fast. Norris followed through.

Then came the flag. Roughing the kicker. Personal foul. Automatic UK first down. The Tigers didn’t get the ball back until there were 38 seconds left, and then they were on their own 13-yard line.

Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz was told by officials that Goodfellow was still in the tackle box because he ran straight back and not to one side or the other.

“They (Wildcats) are rewarded for a huge mistake,” Drinkwitz said.

“The ball is snapped over somebody’s head to the 1-yard line. I’m not sure how anybody on the punt return team is supposed to play it differently. You do have to play defense.”

Tigers linebacker Chad Bailey was told by officials that Norris was flagged because while the snap did hit the ground after soaring over the punter’s head, the punter reestablished himself as having an intention to punt after corralling the ball, meaning Norris should have tried to block the punt instead of tackle the punter. Common sense says that’s asking too much of a defender to figure out in a split-second. Common sense says that while Kentucky celebrated its punter like a hero after the game, no one on Mark Stoops‘ sideline was expecting to benefit from a roughing the kicker call once the snap sailed high and Goodfellow took off after the bouncing ball, his back turned to the defense as he ran.

Kentucky Missouri Football

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., left, fights off Missouri linebacker Chad Bailey, right, as he runs the ball during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. Kentucky won 21-17. 

“I told Will to keep his head up,” Bailey said. “That could have happened to anybody. I thought when the punter fumbled it, it was a live ball. In that situation, it was hard to tell (the punter’s intent). But they called it what they called it.”

The SEC officiating crew working the game said … nothing. Because SEC officials don’t talk after games, even if their calls and non-calls make news. There’s another fixable error that should be corrected. But first, let’s fix the big one here.

If the football hits the ground before it is punted, whether it’s because of a bad snap or a punter’s fumble, the punter should be unprotected from the roughing the kicker rule, period. No matter if the punter wants to punt, run, throw or turn cartwheels. At that point, it should no longer be on the defense to determine the punter’s intent. It should be on the punter, who is a football player wearing pads and a helmet, to make a football play without special protection.

I suppose you could argue the officials should not have thrown the flag. Maybe they should have prioritized common sense over the rule’s actual wording. But the right thing to do with a bad rule is fix it, not ignore it.

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