MADISON, Wis. -- Joel Stave thought he had just thrown the game-winning touchdown pass as he laid sprawled out on the Camp Randall Stadium turf, slapping it with the palms of his hands in celebration. Jazz Peavy was flexing to the crowd following what everyone thought was the first touchdown catch of his career, allowing No. 25 Wisconsin (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) to tie No. 20 Northwestern (9-2, 5-2 Big Ten) at 13 with the extra point still to come and 26 seconds on the clock. Over on the sideline, Vince Biegel and the rest of the defense were already preparing for what the Wildcats might throw at them in desperation, with UW knowing one more stop would send the senior class out with a win in their final home game.
In the end, it was all for naught. The 1-yard touchdown from Stave to Peavy was overturned on replay, with the ruling being the wide receiver “didn’t complete the process of the catch.” On the bench, Peavy’s hands went from giving the touchdown signal to plastered on top of his helmet in essence asking, “How is that possible?”
“The whole time I knew that was a catch,” Peavy would say after what turned into a 13-7 loss for the Badgers, their third in the last four years on Senior Day. “I don’t know what else to say about that. Absolute catch.”
On the play, Peavy caught the ball, took three steps, was pushed by Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose, took one more step and then his right knee hit the ground. All of those acts would seemingly give a player possession of the ball, and though it did move slightly after Peavy hit the ground and rolled over, NCAA guidelines say, “If a player has control of the ball, a slight movement of the ball, even if it touches the ground, will not be considered a loss of possession; He must lose control of the ball in order for there to be a loss of possession.”
“I thought that he had gotten a couple feet down, a couple steps,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Doesn't matter what I think.”
It doesn’t, but that didn’t stop Chryst’s players from reacting to the reversal.
“Just the way it ended is agonizing,” outside linebacker Joe Schobert said. “If your guy catches the ball and takes three steps, then gets pushed down -- it’s not like he dove and bobbled it – [he]caught it and took steps and got pushed out of bounds and down and that’s when he hit the ground. It’s just the way the rule was interpreted right now. For me, it’s controversial at best.”
Stave would end up getting sacked and knocked out of the game on the next play, followed by a spike from running back Dare Ogunbowale and then an incomplete pass from Bart Houston to Tanner McEvoy to seal UW’s fate.
“It’s frustration but then it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to get back in the game, try to make the next play,” Peavy said of the three subsequent plays after his touchdown was overturned. “We still had some time, so I just had to brush that off for a second, but after the game it all just fell back on my shoulders and it hurt.”
The Peavy score was the third Wisconsin touchdown of the game that got called back or overturned on replay. Just before that play, Stave hooked up with tight end Troy Fumagalli for a 22-yard score, but officials correctly determined he was down at the 1-yard line.
In the third quarter, Alex Erickson was trying to tell his guys to get out of the way on a punt, waving his arms below his waist. When the ball rolled in his direction, he picked it up and took off for what would have been a 78-yard touchdown and a 14-7 Wisconsin lead. But it got called back, with officials saying what Erickson did was considered an invalid fair catch.
According to the NCAA rulebook, an invalid fair catch is any waving signal that isn't clearly above the head of the returner.
“Everyone's used to the over-the-head fair catch signal,” Chryst said. “And now I understood what they were calling. When the ball bounces short and you try to warn everyone to get away from the ball. Any signal at all, the returner can't advance it.”
The loss, and the fashion in which it played out, was just the latest heartbreak for UW’s senior class. The fifth-year guys have witnessed losing on a “Hail Mary” to Michigan State in 2011, three overtime losses in 2012, having a game stolen from them at Arizona State in 2013 and a four-point loss to Iowa earlier this season.
“I thought we won it a couple times,” Chryst said, “but we didn't.”