With 1:13 remaining in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, K-State receiver Adrian Hilburn scored a touchdown that brought the score to 36-34. The Wildcats needed only to score a two-point conversion to tie the game and force overtime.
After wriggling free of the defender, who clung to him several seconds after the play ended, Hilburn ran to the corner of the end zone and saluted to the relatively small section of purple that sat behind the K-State end zone.
Then something happened. A referee approached Hilburn.
“Soon as it happened, he said, ‘Wrong choice, buddy,'” the receiver recalled.
At first, Hilburn, who was in the midst of one of the best games of his senior season, did not see the flag. When he first did, he did not know that he was the offender.
“I know we were on their turf and maybe I shouldn’t have did that, but I still don’t think that was a good call,” Hilburn said. “I blame myself for it. I shouldn’t have done it. At the same time, I didn’t think it was – it was emotional for me. We were down, all we had to do to was try to score two extra points, and I guess my emotions took over me, and that’s what happened.”
Many were surprised by the call, including quarterback Carson Coffman, who commented that Syracuse players were “holding up the rock” – a celebratory, diamond-shaped hand gesture – every time they scored.
“I was just saluting,” Hilburn said. “That’s something you do out of respect, just for your teammates or for your fans.”
Intent aside, the effect remained. The officials penalized the Wildcats 15 yards, making the attempt at a two-point conversation much more difficult. After it failed, K-State executed an onside kick and recovered it, but illegal touching was called, so the ball was given to Syracuse. The Orange proceeded to move into the so-called victory formation, taking a knee several times to run out the remaining time on the clock.
Even NBA superstar LeBron James took time to publicly disdain the call. He tweeted the following:
“I’m watching this Kansas St vs Syracuse Bowl game and the refs just decided the outcome of it! Its a shame what happened! Crazy!! Kids playing their hearts out and the game decided on a terrible yellow flag. SMDH”
Certainly no one call can be blamed for losing a game, but this one took a heavy emotional toll, especially on Hilburn.
“My heart dropped to my stomach, to my toes,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
His teammates supported him. Both Coffman and senior offensive lineman Zach Kendall said there were other opportunities to win the game, and it can’t be blamed on that one call. Nevertheless, the penalty took a heavy emotional toll on Hilburn.
“I couldn’t keep my head up,” Hilburn said. “I was just bawling when it happened. I feel like I let the team down. Of course you can’t blame it all on one play, but at the same time I feel like, it’s at the very end, it was on me. I blame myself.”
Hilburn said his players came around him and put their arms around him and consoled him, telling him he played his heart out and it wasn’t his fault.
“It just made me feel a whole lot better,” Hilburn said, “and I appreciate them for that because I don’t know what I would do without them.”
The receiver had been one of Coffman’s go-to guys all night and led the team with 84 yards on 5 catches. Yardage, however, is not Hilburn’s goal. His perception of the game is crushed because of the penalty and how it negatively affected his team.
“I don’t feel like it was a good game if it ended that way, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “I mean, that’s what everybody says, ‘Oh well you had a great game, blah blah blah blah,’ but for me, I take zero catches, zero touchdowns, for a win on my last time in a Wildcat uniform.”
K-State head coach Bill Snyder said he could not comment on the call.
Kendall said he is obviously a little biased in his view of the call, as it went against his team. As for the understanding between players and coaches of what is okay and what is excessive in the end zone, the lineman had a matter-of-fact response.
“I guess you just can’t do anything after you score other than celebrate with your team,” Kendall said, “and that’s what we should have done. That’s what we should have done, but you play with the cards you’re dealt, and that was rough.”