Ruling on refs is mixed

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CINCINNATI -- The big winners last night were the No. 5 Cincinnati Bearcats, who stayed unbeaten; the Big East Conference, which kept its hopes alive for a national championship; and the Panthers, who went to bed in Pittsburgh knowing they are in a perfect spot to win the league title and go to a Bowl Championship Series game.

The losers were the West Virginia Mountaineers, who came up on the short end of a 24-21 decision to the Bearcats despite -- in coach Bill Stewart's words -- "playing the fifth-ranked team in the country right off their feet;" the Big East game officials, who once again looked as if they were trying to get their top team to the BCS title game; and those of us who like the Pitt-West Virginia game to mean something really important.

I have mixed feelings about all of it.

Don't get me wrong. It's nice for Pitt that it can lose to Notre Dame tonight at Heinz Field and lose at West Virginia Nov. 27 and still win the Big East championship by beating Cincinnati at home Dec. 5. The No. 8 Panthers couldn't ask for a better scenario. Based on what I saw here last night and what Pitt has shown the past five weeks, I'm thinking the Panthers have a shot at taking down the Bearcats.

But I'm a selfish guy. A big part of me wanted to see the Mountaineers win last night. That would have meant their Thanksgiving Friday game with Pitt would have gone a long way toward deciding the league title.

Of course, that was going to be a long shot on this gorgeous autumn night. Cincinnati is a good team with two big-time quarterbacks and a potent offense. It was playing at home. And it was going to get the benefit of the doubt from the Big East officials.

Sorry, I can't help but feel that way about the men calling the game.

I was at the Pitt-West Virginia game in Morgantown Dec. 1, 2007. The Mountaineers were four-touchdown favorites that night and would have gone to the national championship game with a win. The officials made a number of controversial calls, all of them seeming to favor West Virginia. Somehow, the Panthers overcame everything -- the calls, the Mountaineers, the crowd -- and won, 13-9. It was one of the great wins in Pitt history. Somehow, justice seemed served.

Considering that game, West Virginia probably doesn't have much room to complain about the big call that went against it last night.

It happened late in the second quarter with West Virginia leading, 14-7. On a first-and-goal play from the Mountaineers' 2, Cincinnati star running back Isaiah Pead leaped for the end zone with the ball only to have it knocked out by the West Virginia defense with Mountaineers nose tackle Chris Neild recovering the fumble at the 1. At least that was the ruling by the on-field officials.

The replay officials saw it differently and overturned the call, giving Pead the touchdown. There's supposed to be irrefutable proof to do that. But the play was too close to call. The decision on the field should have stood.

"They say he crossed the line. I didn't see him cross any line," West Virginia safety Robert Sands said.

Stewart was tactful. "I'll save that for the Big East," he said when asked for his opinion of the call. "They're professional men. They called it, I guess, the way, they saw it."

Stewart seemed more upset about a non-call on a third-and-11 pass to Mountaineers wide receiver Alric Arnett early in the third quarter. He thought there was interference by safety Drew Frey. "[The officials] said it was bang-bang," he said.

Sadly, controversial calls favoring top teams seem to be happening more frequently. Every conference wants a shot for one of its teams to play for the national championship. Was it really so surprising when a brutally bad call went against Indiana a few weeks ago when it was playing then-unbeaten Iowa in a Big Ten game?

The Mountaineers never really recovered from this call.

Who knows? Maybe Cincinnati still would have won without that break. It did score the first 10 points of the second half to take a 24-14 lead. But we'll never know for sure.

Cincinnati hardly looked like the No. 5 team in America. It lost a fumble for the first time this season. Quarterback Zach Collaros, getting most of the playing time ahead of one-time Heisman Trophy candidate Tony Pike, threw an interception. (Pike played four snaps and threw two touchdown passes). Tight end Adrien Robinson dropped a pass in the end zone. The defense gave up 390 yards, including 202 on the ground.

None of that matters now. All that matters is the win. The Bearcats are 10-0 with a home game against Illinois Nov. 27 before that game at Pitt. If they win both, they'll have a chance -- perhaps faint because the Big East commands so little respect nationally -- to play for the BCS title.

A lot of people went to bed happy last night.

I can't say I was one of 'em.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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