Mark Story

What in the ‘Snell’ was that referee thinking?

Stoops reacts to Snell’s ejection, final play call

Head coach Mark Stoops answers questions on the attempt at a two-point conversion and the referee's decision to eject Benny Snell Jr. from the Music City Bowl game at Nissan Stadium.
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Head coach Mark Stoops answers questions on the attempt at a two-point conversion and the referee's decision to eject Benny Snell Jr. from the Music City Bowl game at Nissan Stadium.

A player such as Kentucky star running back Benny Snell starts preparing for a college football season in the frozen months of the winter.

Grueling, early-morning conditioning sessions, year-round repetitions in the weight room.

In the summer months, when other college kids are whiling away the lazy, hazy days at the pool, a college football player like Snell is working out on his own, trying to stay fit for the start of preseason practice.

Then, once the season starts, a college football star such as Snell navigates a grueling weekly gauntlet of physicality all with one goal in mind.

To make a postseason trip.

Kentucky’s Snell did all of that to help his team earn a berth in the Music City Bowl on Friday in Nashville.

Then, with the fruit of his labors in hand, Snell saw his postseason reward end early in the second quarter by one of the more puzzling, inexplicable officiating decisions I have ever witnessed.

Kentucky’s last-gasp efforts to upset No. 20 Northwestern ended with an incomplete two-point conversion pass with 37 seconds left in the game, allowing the purple Wildcats (10-3) to escape with a 24-23 victory over the blue Wildcats (7-6) before a crowd announced at 48,675.

UK came achingly close to erasing a 24-14 deficit in the final 7:49 of the game, only to see Stephen Johnson’s potential game-winning two-point pass bounce off the hands of Tavin Richardson in the end zone.

Yet a wild and woolly bowl game was overshadowed by the decision of Pac-12 referee Chris Coyte to eject UK star Snell early in the second quarter.

The bizarre sequence began with Kentucky, trailing 10-7, with a first-and-10 from the Northwestern 37.

Snell, the SEC’s leading rusher during the regular season, took a handoff and tried to go around right end.

He got stoned and thrown for a 7-yard loss in front of the Kentucky bench.

Coyte, the referee, appeared to try to help the UK running back up.

Snell raised his hands to stop the ref from helping him up, appearing to touch Coyte’s hands/arms.

Then Snell shook his head emphatically no, seeming to indicate he did not need help getting up.

Coyte then threw a flag, and ejected Snell from the game.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said after the game Coyte told him that Snell had placed his hands on him and pushed him.

“I didn’t see it,” Stoops said.

Snell declined to say whether he said anything to the referee before his ejection.

“I’ve got a very strong passion for the game,” Snell said. “I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong. I did not need any help getting up.”

Asked further questions about the ejection, Snell kept repeating — with a smile — “I’ve got a very strong passion for the game.”

To his credit, Coyte gave a statement on the Snell ejection to Adam Sparks, a reporter for Nashville newspaper The Tennessean.

“The player got up and grabbed my arms and pushed them away and contacted me,” Coyte said. “That’s a foul.”

Coyte told Sparks he ruled Snell’s touching of him to be intentional contact.

The referee said he did not hear Snell say anything.

Even without Snell, UK came agonizingly close to ending its season with a special moment.

After being embarrassed in back-to-back blowout losses at Georgia and to Louisville to end the regular season, Stoops and the Wildcats battled fiercely against a good Big Ten foe.

“We were just fractions away,” Stoops said.

After the fiasco involving over-the-top fan reaction toward referee John Higgins following last season’s Kentucky loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament, I promised myself I was not going to be part of demonizing officials.

But I will say the 48,675 fans who paid to be at the Music City Bowl, the people watching the game on ESPN — and, most importantly, Snell and his teammates — deserved better than to see a star player ejected for, essentially, refusing to be helped up off the ground.

Instead, the 2017 Music City Bowl will go down as another bizarre chapter in the star-crossed history of Kentucky football.

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