Based solely upon the rules of an inadvertent whistle, it would appear that the Big 12 officiating crew ruled correctly in a sticky situation in the Belk Bowl. However, when replay rules are considered, the ball should have been awarded to Virginia Tech.
Happening when an official sounds their whistle before the play is dead by rule, inadvertent whistles are always extremely messy to sort out. Rarely can anything equitable come out of the situation.
In the second quarter of the Belk Bowl, the Arkansas Razorbacks punted on fourth down, and Virginia Tech Hokie receiver Cam Phillips muffed it. As a Razorback defensive back Henre’ Toliver dove on the ball, the field judge sounded his whistle. Toliver never completed recovery of the ball, which bounced more and was subsequently picked up by a Hokie. During the kick, a flag was thrown for holding on Virginia Tech (video below).
Because the whistle sounded when the ball was not dead, by rule, the whistle was inadvertent. The enforcement then got even more muddled.
The play contained two parts: possession of the ball (who had the ball, and who will end up with it?) and the holding foul. By rule, penalties on plays with an inadvertent whistle are enforced. This was a non-negotiable; therefore the possession piece was the more difficult part.
The Big 12 officiating crew conferred for what felt like an eternity. The announcement was simply that the receiving team, Virginia Tech, held during the play. The holding would be enforced, and Virginia Tech would keep the ball. There was no mention of any other complications.
Razorback head coach Brett Bielema protested vehemently. After discussion with Bielema, the officials adjusted the call, saying that the ruling on the field was that the ball was in possession of Arkansas when the whistle sounded (which indeed appeared to be what the field judge’s original, although hasty, determination was). The play then went under review to determine if Toliver indeed possessed the ball.
Replay reversed the ruling, determining that Toliver never possessed the ball. Given the covering official’s admission of when the whistle sounded (not determined by replay), the crew then announced that it was being treated as an inadvertent whistle. Since it sounded while the ball was not in the player’s possession, the ball would be returned to the team last in possession. Since Arkansas never recovered the muffed punt, the status of a kick never ended. Therefore, the ball was returned to the Razorbacks at the previous spot.
The next piece was simply to enforce the penalty. The holding on Virginia Tech was enforced, the yardage pushed Arkansas past the line to gain, and the Razorbacks had a first down.
In short, an inadvertent whistle sounded during a kick; the ball was given back to the team last in possession; and the penalty was enforced. At first glance, this appears to be the correct outcome; regardless of the anguish suffered to achieve it.
However, in the rules that govern inadvertent whistles, there is an exception that reads: “Rule 12.”
Rule 12 governs replay rules. When a loose ball is ruled dead, and there is a clear recovery in the immediate continuing action, replay has the authority to award recovery. In the Belk Bowl, Virginia Tech recovered in the immediate action after a recovery was ruled, so possession should be given by replay to the Hokie player. The penalty would still be enforced, but the possession piece would be different.
Rather than let replay do its function, which is to correct obvious errors and not “re-officiate” the play, the crew fell back on the inadvertent whistle ruling. The replay ruling would be focused on the immediate dead-ball recovery, and not the reason why the ball was dead. Similarly, replay can’t help determine the whistle that caused the play to become dead. In addition to determining that Arkansas did not have possession, replay should have also awarded the ball to Virginia Tech.