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FAYETTEVILLE — Marc Curles once again finds himself at the center of a controversial call that went against Arkansas.
More than a decade after he and his crew were suspended following a series of blown calls in the Razorbacks’ loss at No. 1 Florida in 2009, Curles was the head referee who confirmed a targeting penalty on Jalen Catalon late in the Razorbacks’ 27-24 loss to LSU on Saturday.
Catalon, Arkansas’ star safety, was disqualified from the game and had to watch from the sideline as the Tigers scored the go-ahead touchdown and hung on to win.
However, replays appeared to show Catalon turn his body before hitting the receiver – Kayshon Boutte – with his shoulder and side. His helmet never touched the receiver. That is essentially what head coach Sam Pittman saw, he told the media afterward.
“I thought he tried to avoid the hit,” Pittman said. “He was coming in with his shoulder. Their receiver went lower as he was going toward the ground. I felt like he was trying to avoid the contact, but I can see what they saw as well. But certainly, it looked to me he was trying to get his head out of there, trying to avoid the receiver’s helmet as well.”
Asked a follow up question later in the interview about the explanation he received from the official after the call was confirmed, Pittman declined to offer any more insight.
Public criticism of officiating results in a $25,000 fine, as Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin experienced earlier this season.
“Man, I’m not going to answer that stuff,” Pittman said. “It costs me money and it’s over with. You saw it. I mean… The explanation was what I said earlier.”
Pittman took a similar high road when the controversial ending of the Auburn game cost the Razorbacks a big road win over a ranked opponent.
Calling the game on the SEC Network, color analyst Matt Stinchcomb – a former All-American offensive lineman at Georgia and first-round pick – was vocal about his disagreement with the call.
“I don’t know how that call can possibly be confirmed,” Stinchcomb said. “I also don’t know how you can play defense if you are not able to make a play that looks like that. He turned his entire body sideways. I didn’t even see any head or neck contact.”
Because the penalty occurred in the second half, Catalon will not be eligible to play in the first half of Arkansas’ next game, which is scheduled to be at Missouri next Saturday.
There is not an appeals process to overturn that first-half suspension, but that did not stop Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek from saying in a tweet that he would look into it.
“I cannot change the outcome or any of the other missed calls, but I will work with the appropriate SEC Officials to make sure that this ‘targeting’ call does not cost Jalen Catalon our next game,” Yurachek wrote. “My student-athletes deserve better.”
In addition to giving LSU an extra 15 yards, putting them well into Arkansas’ territory, the penalty also forced the Razorbacks to play without Catalon on what proved to be the Tigers’ game-winning touchdown drive.
Pro Football Focus had him as the second-highest graded safety in the SEC entering the week, but Catalon’s presence on the field is immeasurable to the Razorbacks’ defense.
“He brings such a confidence, such an aura around him that he affects the team positively maybe even more than his play,” Pittman said. “Obviously he’s a really good player and things of that nature, and it’s very seldom you might say a redshirt freshman is a leader, but he is. So it affects you, obviously, in a lot of areas – skill wise, playability, communication and the fact that our players believe in him.”
The review of the targeting penalty was actually one of several replay stoppages throughout the game. Pittman said he understood it because there were a lot of review-worthy plays.
In fact, the first-year coach said he was okay with all of the disruptions because he believes the officials get the calls right most of the time.
“Honestly, I want all of them to go our way – every one of them – but there were some I understood,” Pittman said. “The fumble, you know, I thought was ours. … Reviews, basically over the long run, probably go 50-50 when it’s all said and done.”
The fumble Pittman referenced happened early in the second quarter. Joe Foucha seemed to knock the ball loose on a 7-yard run by John Emery and came out of the pile with the ball, but the runner was ruled down by contact.
After review, Curles announced that there was a fumble, but no clear immediate recovery by the Razorbacks, so the ball stayed with Tennessee. Arkansas eventually recovered a fumble on the drive, but instead of taking over around the LSU 37-yard line, it started at its own 29. That’s a difference of 34 yards in field position.
Stinchcomb was also critical of that decision by the officials during the television broadcast.
“Clearly Arkansas’ ball,” Stinchcomb said. “That’s a really bad call. There’s no other way to describe it.”
Speaking to the media after the game, linebacker Grant Morgan said he felt for Catalon, but didn’t want to take a stance on the targeting call that led to his disqualification. The fifth-year senior was, however, more forgiving toward the referees.
“A lot the rules in football nowadays are getting so precise and getting so they’re almost lawyers out there on the field,” Morgan said. “They’ve got a lot to think about, too. They’re playing the game, they’re trying to get out of our way. They’re trying to look at a lot of stuff, too. So it’s hard. But they’re the refs at the end of the day.”
HawgBeat reached out to the SEC – through the UA communications staff – for a comment, but was told the conference would not be making a statement on the two controversial calls.