It’s been nearly 24 hours, and I’m just now of cool enough head to begin discussing this play. The New Mexico State Aggies managed to lose to the referees, the Louisana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, and themselves all in one game. Not at the same time, mind you, but it took all of those losses to produce a 4-6 record and mere shreds of bowl eligibility hopes.
Yes, I am fully aware that a win or a loss is comprised of much more than a single play. That said, when you are on the sidelines and can feel the tide turning, the momentum shifting, and things starting to break the right way, it’s extremely hard not to delineate the game into everything that happened prior to the moment that crushed all that momentum and everything that came after.
In some ways, you could argue that it’s rather poetic that the defense with one of the best single-season sack totals in recent Aggie history would have their day torn apart by the only sack they recorded all day long. But I’m here to talk about horrific refereeing, not artistry.
Let’s just go straight to the Zapruder film, shall we?
This appears to be a pretty straightforward play. Malik Demby and Javahn Fergurson have a meeting at the quarterback. Demby makes first contact and has to lower his head and shoulders a bit to wrap up because Jordan Davis has started to try ducking and spinning the other way. As those two go down, Fergurson comes in and pulls up but still winds up hitting heads with Davis. He was probably meaning to just touch Davis down and not make head contact, but there it was. A bang-bang play, especially in real time.
The referees flag Fergurson for a personal foul, which I understand. I think it’s a really ticky-tack call, because you’re asking Fergurson to pull up at the last second, and because his contact was very minor. If you want to review it for targeting and call that on Fergurson, again I disagree, but the literal letter of the law allows you to make that call if you see fit. Fine.
But that isn’t what happened.
First, they flagged Fergurson for the personal foul.
Then we got a replay review delay that was three minutes long, and the end result was Malik Demby getting ejected. Malik Demby literally did nothing but sack the quarterback and kinda-sorta touch heads in the process.
After that call is announced, they return to review and spend an additional two minutes conducting a second review, whose end result is that both Fergurson and Demby are ejected for targeting.
If you happen to know of many teams in this country who are able to recover and get their heads back into the game after a five-minute delay that results in two defensive starters getting ejected, please go ahead and give them the title belt now. I can damn sure guarantee you that in the Sun Belt, where the talent margins are so thin that every mistake is magnified tenfold, such an instance would completely deflate a team.
And it did.
It didn’t help that the Aggies were without Tyler Rogers the rest of the game with a shoulder injury. Nick Jeanty came in cold and had his moments, but it just wasn’t the same, especially late when he started to force throws over the middle.
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OK, so let’s backtrack, because this game wasn’t just that play. The Aggies struggled for the entirety of the first half (not unlike their matchups with Georgia Southern and Texas State) to figure out an effective run defense against Trey Ragas, who would finish the day with 132 yards on the ground, though it felt like so much more. Seven of Ragas’ 23 carries went for 10+ yards including his 31-yard first half scamper.
That said, you could feel them starting to figure things out, and after holding the Cajuns to a field goal to close the half and opening the second stanza by marching down for a touchdown of their own, you had to like the way things were starting to shape up. The next two possessions produced another touchdown for the Aggies followed by a stop on defense that produced a 24-yard ULL punt and a drive that started at midfield.
Even after things fizzled out in the red zone the game was tied at 34-34 a minute into the fourth quarter and things felt different.
The next Cajuns drive was shut down and they were going to be punting from their own 22, the Aggies had all their momentum, but a flag came flying in.
Even if the call stuck but the targeting fouls didn’t, NMSU might have been alright facing a Louisiana-Lafayette team that had been granted a fresh set of downs but still had done very little to that point, with only a minimal delay. But when you have to watch your momentum bleed away in five minutes of reviews and then have to march right back out without one of your best pass rushers and another player, it’s hard not to be demoralized.
It showed as the Cajuns needed only six more plays to go 63 yards and score. At that point, the rest was probably moot, but Jeanty started chucking the ball in an effort to charge back and it was all for naught.
The strange thing is, I still have no idea which of these teams is going to reach a bowl game. The following week was going to feature New Mexico State playing South Alabama at home, while the Cajuns would stay at home to face Georgia Southern. Before yesterday, it was a South Alabama team that had just beaten Arkansas State and a Georgia Southern squad that was feisty but still 0-9; then the Eagles beat the Jaguars 52-0 and clearly nobody knows anything about anything.
The refs torpedoed the Aggie momentum hard in the fourth quarter, but the players did much on their own to be in a situation where they needed that momentum so badly just to get into a tie game. Things are not yet done, but there is no more margin for error.