The result: The Akron Zips, the No. 4-ranked team in the country, won their eighth Mid-American Conference title in the last nine years with a narrow 1-0 victory over upstart University at Buffalo on Sunday at Akron's FirstEnergy Stadium-Cub Cadet Field. With the loss, the Bulls' season ends with a record of 8-7-4 and the title of MAC runners-up.
The game was over when: Not until the final whistle, as the Bulls' defense was stiff throughout the match, and MAC Player of the Year Russell Cicerone had his free kick from 20 yards away blocked by the Zips' wall in the 90th minute.
Turning point, part I: With the Bulls looking likely to enter halftime still scoreless, Akron midfielder Victor Souto latched onto a bouncing ball at the top of the box and blasted a right-footed volley into the Bulls' right upper-90, sending the Zips into the locker room, a minute later, with a spring in their steps.
Across the world, coaches emphasize not conceding a goal in the first and last five minutes of the game, as well as the five minutes on either side of halftime, because they can be particularly demoralizing.
Turning point, part II: In the 65th minute, Akron defender Shane Wiedt tried to pass the ball back to his keeper, but mishit the volley and realized that opportunistic UB striker Steven Stryker would be one-on-one with Zips keeper Jake Fenlason. Trying desperately to recover from his blunder, Wiedt retreated and dragged the UB forward to the ground.
UB players and coaches were irate when the head referee pulled out a yellow card instead of a red -- watch Braden Culver's shocked reaction in the video below -- and assistant coach Cody Camp received a red card from the bench a minute later for vehemently contesting the call. Since the foul occurred outside the 18-yard box, the Bulls earned a free kick, not a penalty kick.
"It's a shame that a controversial decision had such a big impact on a championship match," head coach Stu Riddle said after the match.
We shared the YouTube video with a few local referees -- all three interviewed are certified to officiate college matches -- to learn their thoughts on the decision.
John Netter: "I gave a red card in college earlier this year for 'Denial of an Obvious Goal Scoring Opportunity' (DOGSO) when a goalkeeper blocked a shot with her hands that was going on frame, but she was a few steps outside of her box. DOGSO red cards take so much guts to give because, 90 percent of the time, it is just a simple foul that would maybe warrant a yellow card.
"But if the distance to goal is close, the direction is straight at goal, the distance of the player to the ball is small and there aren't other defenders between the foul and the goal, then it satisfies the DOGSO criteria," which implies a red card should be awarded.
My opinion on this clip, which was not the best quality:
1 ) He is dribbling directly at the goal
2) The ball is on his foot
3) There are no other defenders between the attacker and the goal
4) He does indeed get fouled.
This is the definition of DOGSO."
Andy Evenhouse: "Should have been a red card. I agree that the foul was outside the box."
Tim Kronenwetter: "A generous yellow; miss-touch and recovery by the defender usually lets us referees have a chance at a red card there." When asked further about what would go into the ref's decision compared to what we see from the video: "Angle-dependent; 10 yards laterally changes the read, especially if that's a pacy player."
Ankur Singh: "I believe [the yellow card] was a fair decision, but it would obviously be difficult to tell from not being directly on the field and having that vantage point. It's an especially difficult call to make because of how quickly the attacker forced the defender to play a bad ball.
"As an official, you are trained to try and read the game and [anticipate] where the ball might be going next, but it becomes very difficult when you have to stop on a dime and change direction to make a match-critical decision."
In sum, three of the four referees agree, to varying extents, that a red card should have been issued to Wiedt. The quality of the video clip and the vantage point of the head official prevent us from digging further, but DOGSO is an objective call, Kronenwetter added, if the conditions that Netter listed are met.
What this means: Even if Wiedt did receive a red card and Akron was forced to play with 10 men, it doesn't necessarily change the outcome of the game. All three referees interviewed said the foul occurred outside the box, and the Bulls did squander that free kick opportunity.
With a man advantage, it's probable that the Bulls would have had more pressure for the final 25 minutes of the contest, as well as Camp's coaching from the bench, but that doesn't imply they would have buried a chance. In other words, while perhaps the referee ripped a golden opportunity away from the Bulls, he didn't necessarily tear away the result.
Game-flow: The Bulls approached Sunday's title match differently than their Oct. 9 regular season meeting with Akron, another controversial loss where the Zips were awarded a dubious penalty kick in the 84th minute.
In that match, UB scored very early and then bunkered down defensively, keeping numbers behind the ball and clogging the center of the pitch, making life difficult for Akron's star trio of Adam Najem, Richie Laryea and Souto. In today's final, the Bulls still conceded possession, for the most part, but pressured higher up the field and took more risks going forward.
*Joseph Kuta: The redshirt-sophomore keeper, a transfer from Robert Morris, was a revelation late in the season, and his success reached its peak in the MAC Tournament. After an 11-save performance in the dramatic win over Western Michigan Friday, Kuta added 10 more on Sunday, including at least three point-blank saves (at least two on all-conference first-teamer Laryea.) Like Friday, he stood no chance in stopping the goal. The Bulls' goalie was named to the All-MAC Tournament team, along with teammates Cicerone and Daniel Cramarossa.
*Fox Slotemaker: The sophomore defender put on an absolute clinic defensively, made more impressive by the absence of Nick Forrester, his partner in central defense, due to a yellow card accumulation. The Kiwi is a master at playing angles both on the ball and away from the ball, and on several Akron attacks, Slotemaker intercepted the Zips' final ball. He's smart and physical, and was unquestionably the Bulls' best player on Sunday.
*Austin Place: When Cramarossa was pushed into a holding midfield role in the middle of the season, Austin Place stepped in at right fullback. He's had some uneven matches along the way, but the Oklahoman was near flawless in Sunday's match, working feverishly to keep up with the Zips' pacy winger Sam Gainford while contributing a few vital tackles and clearances. I don't think I've seen Place play a better match as a Bull.
Others: Forward Scott Doney's minutes were limited, but he had a nice sequence upon entering in the first half, including a pretty hold with his back to goal and layoff to Cicerone for a high-quality chance. Cramarossa didn't find the score-sheet this time, but he was the Bulls' most dangerous attacker with the ball at his feet.
[Look back at UB's dramatic semifinal win on Friday over Western Michigan]
Final matches: Seniors Nicolay Netskar, Marcus Hanson and Dylan Cope played their final matches with the Bulls. The rest of the roster is eligible to return to the team next year, setting UB up nicely for another tournament run.
The final word: "I'm very pleased with the continued progress of the program. We got our first winning record since 2008, won the Big 4 Shield and got to the MAC title match." -- head coach Stu Riddle
Email Ben Tsujimoto at email@example.com