ATHENS, Ga. — Joe Cox is now coaching quarterbacks at Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C., instead of playing the position.
Four years ago, Cox threw a go-ahead touchdown pass to A.J. Green against No. 4 Louisiana State in Sanford Stadium. What would have been the signature win in Cox’s Georgia career became a 20-13 loss after an excessive celebration penalty against Green helped set up a late score by the Tigers.
“I think it could have changed the game, but who knows?” Cox said of a call the Southeastern Conference determined two days later was incorrect. “It definitely wasn’t good for it to happen the way it did and then have all the what ifs for the rest of my life. … To have the air pop out of it the way that it did, it just completely deflated us.”
As sixth-ranked LSU comes to Athens for the first time since that 2009 game to play No. 9 Georgia, unsportsmanlike calls like the ones made on Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel remain high-profile, but officials might be allowing more leeway than they did the last time the teams played in Sanford Stadium.
Officials have talked in recent years about being consistent in calling such fouls, according to SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw.
“We really evolved to a pretty good place on unsportsmanlike conduct,” Shaw said. “We recognize it’s a game of high emotions and played by student-athletes that are young men and women. They’re going to be excited, they’re going to be elated when they do things. You have to take that in.”
Kansas State receiver Adrian Hilburn also was called for excessive celebration for a salute to the fans after scoring a late touchdown in a 36-34 bowl loss to Syracuse in 2010.
Officials were instructed to not be overly technical in applying the rules, Shaw said.
“Allow brief, and the key word is spontaneous, bursts of energy but any act that’s prolonged, self-congratulatory, makes a mockery of the game, those are the types of things we don’t want,” Shaw said. “Then on top of that, anything that is taunting to an opponent, we really have a zero tolerance.”
After a 16-yard touchdown pass from Cox with 1:09 to play put Georgia ahead 13-12, Green was flagged for making a gesture to the crowd that the officiating crew said called attention to himself, violating rule 9-2-1-d. Green said at the time: “All I did was just shake my head and throw my hands up and everybody just came around me.”
The penalty pushed the ensuing kickoff to the 15-yard line. LSU got a 40-yard return and two plays later, Charles Scott scored on a 33-yard touchdown run.
“They certainly were running out of clock and would have had a lot farther to go to get into field goal range,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said then. “It was a shame.”
The SEC later determined video did not “support the call.” Rogers Redding, the SEC coordinator of officials then, at the time called it “a teachable moment for us to let officials know to remind them of the rule and remind them of their responsibility to make good judgments.”
The game also included an excessive celebration penalty on Scott after his touchdown run and on Georgia tight end Orson Charles after a catch when he waved a hand to the crowd and pumped his arm in the air.
A big change on unsportsmanlike calls came in 2011. Calls that happen in the field of play are penalized like any other live-ball foul.
LSU punter Brad Wing had a 52-yard touchdown off a fake punt brought back for excessive celebration for holding the ball out towards a defender.
“After that, I think players recognized they didn’t want to give their touchdown up, so they just cleaned it up,” Shaw said.
Football players are less demonstrative since the live-ball penalty change, according to Redding, now the national coordinator of officials. There were three such calls in Division I football in 2011, “showing the new rules do have an impact on player behavior,” Redding said via email. “A positive spin-off is that we have seen fewer unsportsmanlike conduct falls of all kinds since that rule took effect.”
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo goes over the rules with his players each year.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to celebrate with your teammates,” he said. “You see things on TV, you wonder why that guy didn’t get a flag or a guy makes a sack and does something that an offensive guy will do on a touchdown and doesn’t get flagged, but at the end of the day, it’s a team game, it’s not an individual game.”
Alabama’s Yeldon made a throat slash gesture after a “money” signal following a touchdown against Texas A&M. Texas A&M’s Manziel was called for unsportsmanlike conduct against Rice after he turned back to make a gesture after jawing with defenders after a touchdown pass.
Shaw said SEC officials are now letting some things go that they wouldn’t have four years ago. Like a player giving a quick first down signal after a catch.
“I think now we’re in a good spot,” Shaw said. “We’re not looking for some ticky-tack thing. When we call it, it may be gray in somebody’s mind, but it’s typically over the line beyond a brief spontaneous reaction or burst of energy.”