A salute to sportsmanlike conduct

A salute to sportsmanlike conduct

There are certain to be many great games in New Era Pinstripe Bowl lore, but few will be as spectacular as this first one, when Syracuse triumphed over Kansas State, 36-34, in heart-palpitating fashion.

The thrilling contest had a little bit of everything, from dominant offensive performances to key defensive stops, flea flickers, fake field goal attempts, botched extra points and most of all, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that left Kansas State supporters crying foul.

The controversial moment came with 1:13 to go, when Adrian Hilburn caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Carson Coffman. It was a beautiful play, one so momentous that it caused an eruption of celebration along the Kansas State sidelines. All the Wildcats needed was to punch in the two-point conversion and an inspiring comeback would be complete.

Flag on the play. Unsportsmanlike conduct for excessive celebration.

Hilburn, in his moment of felicity, raised his hand in a salute. That act, according to referee Todd Geerlings, constituted a 15-yard penalty, forcing the Wildcats into an 18-yard conversion attempt and essentially deciding the game.

"Excessive celebration is rule 9-2-1d," Geerlings informed, "which states a penalty is called for: 'Any delayed, excessive, prolonged or choreographed act by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself (or themselves).'"

Surely, the architects of this oft-censured rule did not have respectful salutes in mind, right? Not according to Geerlings.

"It was the salute," he confirmed, "which was the judgment of the calling officials, which were the head linesman and back judge. Two officials threw the flag, both judged it to be drawing attention to themselves, and that's what the flag was for."

What Hilburn actually intended in that moment will never be known, but the penalty seemed extremely harsh for the situation, especially when it was abundantly clear to everyone involved that the touchdown merited an exuberant reaction. Was this not the same field where Notre Dame and Army squared off last month, with salutes abound? If saluting is a case of a player "attempting to focus attention on himself," then everything we know about military conduct is all wrong.

Simply put, it was an ill-advised call that never should have been made, but then these are the things that make certain games unforgettable. Wildcats fans will be remembering that one for a long time.

Of course, it is worth noting that even without the call, the Wildcats would have needed to complete the normal two-point conversion, then stop Syracuse from scoring in the final minute, and after all that, win the game in overtime. Statistically speaking, Syracuse had the upper hand in either case, and the Orange absolutely played well enough to win the match. They deserved it. It just would have been nice to let the players play it out.

Wildcats coach Bill Snyder took the high road, declining to blast the officiating crew.

"I concur with the rule in regards to the intent of the rule," he said. "I concur with that."

Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, beaming after the victory, sidestepped away from the issue as well.

"I didn't even see it. I really didn't," he said. "My mind was going on to the second play, making sure the defense was getting ready for it."

For Marrone, this was a "dream come true," as he gushed several times, for "just a simple kid from the Bronx." Clearly, this game meant a great deal to him, and he seemed especially thrilled to win it.

And though plenty of media and Kansas State fans will scratch their heads about the questionable call, what should really be taken from this game was the incredible sportsmanship displayed on the field, between two teams who battled ferociously for 60 minutes in an extraordinary game.

Delone Carter, a worthy Most Valuable Player, stormed for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Marcus Sales may have been even better, catching five balls for 172 yards and three touchdowns. Daniel Thomas, the much-hyped running back from Kansas State, found the end zone three times himself.

It was an exquisitely played match, a feast for a college football fan's eyes and an historic initiation for a burgeoning bowl series .

From the unparalleled Yankee Stadium venue to the quality of the game itself, The New Era Pinstripe Bowl was a tremendous success. It was an effort worthy of all our salutes.