Explaining the controversy at the end of Arkansas Razorbacks' heartbreaking 30-28 loss to No. 13 Auburn
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Explaining the controversy at the end of Arkansas-Auburn

Sam Pittman was not happy about the end of Arkansas' loss to No. 13 Auburn on Saturday.
Sam Pittman was not happy about the end of Arkansas' loss to No. 13 Auburn on Saturday. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

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Arkansas’ heartbreaking loss at Auburn did not come without controversy.

Trailing by one in the closing seconds Saturday, the No. 13 Tigers found themselves within field goal range and without any timeouts.

All quarterback Bo Nix needed to do was spike the ball to set up a short game-winning field goal, but he bobbled the snap before picking the ball up and throwing it into the ground to stop the clock.

He was flagged for intentional grounding because the fumble nullified his ability to spike the ball. The controversy, though, stemmed from the fact that Nix appeared to turn his body and throw backward, which would make the ball live.

“(I saw) the same thing you did, the ball went backwards 6 yards,” Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman said. “I saw a fumble, then a spike that went backwards 6 yards."

As the ball bounced further away from the line of scrimmage, Arkansas safety Joe Foucha came flying into the backfield and dove for the ball. He didn’t secure it initially, but as the officials were blowing their whistles and waving their arms to signal the end of the play, he wrestled it away from Auburn wide receiver Shedrick Jackson.

After a lengthy replay, referee Jason Autrey announced they were sticking with the call on the field: a fumbled snap followed by an incomplete pass that was ruled intentional grounding.

In his postgame radio interview with Chuck Barrett, Pittman said the officials told him it was a fumble as a backward pass, but they blew the whistle before the ball was recovered and they couldn’t review it.

The first-year coach contradicted himself when asked about the play by the media, saying he was told it wasn’t a backward pass. Although he did not want to say much about it, Pittman’s frustration was evident during the Zoom interview. When asked to confirm that’s what he was told by the officials, he said, “That’s what I said.”

Pittman’s second explanation was echoed by Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn.

“I guess they were saying he fumbled the snap and then got it and then spiked it,” Malzahn told reporters. “That’s what they said.”

However, replays clearly showed that Nix turned his body and the pass was backward, which meant it should have been a live ball capable of being recovered by the Razorbacks.

As for whether there was an immediate recovery that would allow the call to be overturned and the ball awarded to Arkansas, Sunday Night Football on NBC rules expert Terry McAulay - who is also a veteran NFL referee - posted on Twitter than he saw enough to do just that.

“A player from each team immediately continue to play,” McAulay wrote. “That would be considered continuing action and the ball is ultimately and clearly recovered by the defense. In my opinion, this should have been reversed and the ball given to Arkansas.”

Had Autrey and his crew not felt the same way, the ball would have stayed with Auburn, but at least been pushed back several more yards.

Instead, the Tigers retained possession at the 22-yard line. That set up a 39-yard field goal by Anders Carlson that barely snuck inside the upright with seven seconds left and lifted them to a 30-28 win over the Razorbacks.

UPDATE (9:44 p.m. CT Saturday)

The SEC has released a statement about the play.