As officiating conspiracy theories go, this particular one was a doozy.
An official made a mystifyingly bad offside call that significantly aided Notre Dame in its Sept. 17 home win against Cal. A prominent sportscaster reported that the ACC had suspended the “side judge” who blew the call, only to circle back two days later with a bombshell: Not only was the alleged linesman, Matthew Fitzgerald, not suspended after all, but he worked another Notre Dame game the next week that included another dubious pro-Irish call.
Cal fans on message boards called for an investigation (or worse). Some reached out to sportswriters like this one asking to look into it, especially after word spread that Fitzgerald (because of course, the guy in the bag for the Fighting Irish would be named Fitzgerald) — supposedly worked at Notre Dame’s spring game this year. (He did not.)
It had all the makings of the Scandal of the Year, except for one little problem.
Fitzgerald did not throw either of those flags.
The play in question from the Cal-Notre Dame game occurred with 9:36 left in the second quarter and the visiting Bears leading 7-0. An offside call against Cal’s Lu-Magia Hearns III negated Irish kicker Blake Grupe’s missed 45-yard field goal, instead giving the Irish a first down. Two plays later, Chris Tyree caught a 21-yard game-tying touchdown.
Replays clearly showed that neither Hearns nor any other Bears defender had jumped before the snap. Accounts of the game aptly described it as a “phantom offside” call.