College football’s catch rule may have cost Georgia State a program-defining win at Auburn

Finley found his intended receiver, John Samuel Shenker, down the middle for what looked like a 19-yard pass to put the Tigers at Georgia State’s 11-yard line. Shenker never caught the ball. Photo by Harry Wyman | The Signal

Few rules have shifted sports and frustrated fans quite like football’s catch rule, a rule that impacted the outcomes of several college and professional football games.

Just a few weeks ago, the Auburn Tigers’ defense held Georgia State to a scoreless second half as they avoided an upset with a 24-24 win over the Panthers. It was a display of heart and a courageous comeback for the Tigers. But the country took notice once again as the game’s turning point came with 1:11 left in the ball game. 

Setting the scene, the ball is on Georgia State’s 30-yard line with the then-winless Panthers just four stops away from upsetting the then-No. 23 team in the country on the road. The Tigers are in the midst of a drive that has gone 68 yards and is looking for a touchdown to take their first lead of the entire afternoon. Auburn pulled starting quarterback Bo Nix for TJ Finley, and they’re moving the ball. Georgia State’s defense is feeling fatigued, but know how close they are to the biggest win in the program’s history.

Finley found his intended receiver, John Samuel Shenker, down the middle for what looked like a 19-yard pass to put the Tigers at Georgia State’s 11-yard line. Again, the intended receiver. Shenker never caught the ball.

Georgia State’s sideline had a much better view than most at Jordan-Hare Stadium with the sun beginning to set.

As Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg wrote, “Georgia State players immediately thought that the ball went through Shenker’s hands. And they were right.”

Shortly after the offciiating crew, all of whom were part of the SEC, ruled the pass complete, the play went under review. 86,650 people watch as the pass went through Shenker’s hands, dropping the ground before he was able to gain control of it. It was never a catch, nor should it have been ruled a catch. 

Was this because of home field advantage? Perhaps. But, it also comes as a result of playing higher-level competition. 

Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott has seen a few things in college football in his 25 years as a coach and shared a brief opinion on the call after the game.

“They certainly put it in the end zone and made plays to take that drive down there. They had a little bit of help on that review where the ball was incompete, should’ve been put back on the 30-yard line,” Elliott said. “But when you play in the SEC, you’ve got to take the hits, you know. And they gave us a real gut punch on that call so we appreciate that.”

Elliott spent six years as a coach for the South Carolina Gamecocks and is well-acclimated to the officiating crews tendencies.

Maybe the catch goes another way for the Panthers, but Auburn wasn’t worried about it. They went on to score a touchdown to cap off a 98-yard drive before picking off Darren Grainger on the ensuing Georgia State drive. Both sides couldn’t believe what had happened. 

Section 4, Article 1.A of the NCAA Football Rulebook states that, “The ball is in player possession when a player has the ball firmly in his grasp by holding or controlling it while contacting the ground inbounds.”

The catch rule has often shaped football games––some coaches would say for better and others would say for worse. Maybe Auburn doesn’t get the momentum they need for a touchdown with less than a minute to go. But they did, and it was because of an incomplete pass that was ruled complete after quite a fluky review.

Georgia State moved on and has walked away from two of their last three games, but the feeling for the players dosn’t change what was an exceptional performance for both teams on the field.

Now, the Panthers and Tigers are in different positions because of a single play that altered their seasons. 

Eliott’s squad is coming off a dominant 55-21 home win over the Lousiana-Monroe Warhawks, their second victory in as many weeks. On the other hand, Auburn has split their last two games, with the loss coming to the Georgia Bulldogs this past weekend. 

If Shenker’s play is properly ruled incomplete, both teams would sit at 3-3. Now, the Panthers are looking to keep their eyes on the prize. They’ll face the Texas State State Bobcats next Saturday as they look to extend their record to 3-4.