Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth knew he wasn’t supposed to talk about the controversial officiating Saturday night against Iowa — but he could only hold back for so long.
Freiermuth was on the receiving end of one of the most controversial calls of the Big Ten season, after all. In the third quarter, three Penn State touchdowns were called back on the same drive — twice because of holds and, more importantly, on Freiermuth’s would-be TD catch because officials overturned a touchdown by saying he was 1 yard short.
According to the replays, Freiermuth appeared to stretch the ball across the goal line before his knee was down. At best, most TV viewers on social media agreed, the replay didn’t appear to show conclusive evidence that merited the call being reversed. The sophomore initially tried to deflect reporters’ questions but, when asked if he was coached up to avoid telling the media what he really thought, Freiermuth smiled and nodded.
But, the more he was asked about it, the more he wanted to share his opinion after the 17-12 win.
“Yeah,” he eventually said. “I felt I was in. I clearly wasn’t, but I’m happy we got the win. And it is what it is.”
Was he surprised the officials reversed the call?
“I was surprised,” he added. “I saw the replay.”
It was a call that could’ve changed the entire face of the game, which saw Penn State hold a narrow 7-6 lead at the time. And it was one of the most unusual series, in terms of that call and the penalties, since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten. Running back Journey Brown initially scored a 6-yard TD — but it was disallowed because of holding. Then Clifford threw a 16-yard TD to Freiermuth on the next play — but it was reversed and ruled 1 yard short. Brown rushed for no gain, then another holding call moved Penn State back again, and then Sean Clifford sprinted in for an 11-yard TD — before that was also called back for holding.
In five plays, Penn State was called for three holding penalties and had what appeared to be a clear touchdown overturned.
“The thing that was really interesting,” James Franklin said during his opening statement Saturday night, “was we’re one one of the least-penalized teams in the country, and we come in here tonight, and it didn’t necessarily play out that way. I’ll leave it at that. Five yards (for Iowa) to 80 yards.”
Later in the press conference, Franklin was asked about that series and specifically the overturned Freiermuth touchdown. Franklin said he didn’t get an explanation of the reversal, but then he paused.
He likely knew he couldn’t share his opinion without getting fined. But a reporter pressed for his take.
“I’d love to do it. Trust; trust me,” Franklin said. “I’d love to have a lengthy conversation about it — and our fans want me to have a lengthy conversation about it. It’s not going to do any good.
“I’m going to enjoy the win; I’m going to focus on the things we can control. I get it; I get it. But I’m in a no-win situation here.”
The media requested a pool interview with the officiating crew, but the request was denied because a Big Ten official said it was simply a judgment call. The conference also did not release a statement.
“It is nerve-wracking,” wideout KJ Hamler acknowledged, referring to the series. “I think we scored probably three times on that possession and got called back each time. It is frustrating but, like I said, you got to control the controllables. You got to knuckle down and suck it up.”
This isn’t the first time that referee John O’Neill has been involved in controversy with the Nittany Lions.
In 2012, against Nebraska, Penn State QB Matt McGloin appeared to throw a touchdown to tight end Matt Lehman. Both TV commentators, Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman, believed it was a clear score. But O’Neill and his crew ruled it a fumble. Penn State lost 32-23.
In 2014, against Ohio State, O’Neill and his crew ruled a clear Christian Hackenberg incompletion a Vonn Bell interception. And the Buckeyes later hit a 49-yard field goal — which clearly came about 3 seconds after the play-clock expired. Penn State lost 31-24.
A petition is already circulating on Change.org for the NCAA to fire O’Neill. Within six hours of the game ending, more than 600 fans had already signed the petition.
Despite the controversial call this time, though, the Nittany Lions rebounded. Defensive tackle Robert Windsor said the defensive line started chatting and preparing after the second TD was called back.
“There was one point we got excited, then it was disappointment. Excitement-disappointment,” Windsor recalled. “There was one point where I turned around and talked to our defensive line and said it doesn’t matter because we’re going to go out there even if they don’t score. We’re going to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all night.”
The Nittany Lions eventually settled for a 33-yard field goal to boost their advantage to a 10-6 lead. The defense held steady, and Iowa never reclaimed the momentum.
So most players just tried to look on the bright side afterward.
“Things are going to happen during the game, and we got to eliminate those penalties,” Clifford said. “It could’ve been crucial because we had two touchdowns on the board.
“But, yeah, we just got to learn from it.”