Cover to cover: Behind the USC-Utah score

The dustup over the scoring change in last week’s USC-Utah game lingers, especially in Las Vegas.

We asked Chad Millman, editor in chief of ESPN The Magazine and author of the Behind The Bets blog on ESPN.com, to break down the issues behind the change, and the aftermath.

Question: What happened?

Millman: From a betting perspective, the USC Trojans closed as 8.5-point favorite over Utah on Saturday. At the end of the game Utah lined up for a field goal, down by three points. If they miss, Utah bettors cover. If they make it and the game goes into OT, the result is still in question. Instead, USC blocked the kick and ran the recovery all the way back for a touchdown. Those six points turned the game from a cover for Utah bettors into a cover for SC bettors, since the Trojans seemingly won by nine.

But, SC was flagged on the play for excessive celebration, as players on the sideline ran onto the field. Officials did not indicate the touchdown should count, so scoreboard operators did not put it on the board. The final score was listed as 17-14 and sportsbooks began paying bettors who picked Utah to cover. Two hours later officials from the Pac-12 corrected the error and made the final score 23-14 SC. Now those who bet USC had winning tickets.

Question: Who did it affect more, the bettors or the casinos?

Millman: It affected everyone on an individual basis. If you were an SC bettor who saw the final score and threw away your ticket, you couldn’t collect later on. Or, if you were a Utah bettor who waited too long to cash, you didn’t make any money.

Casinos were affected depending on their house rules. Some paid out both sides, if they have rules dictating they will honor score changes. Some don’t have rules stating that, so they pay out based on what the final score was according to reputable sources (AP, ESPN) a few minutes after the game.

Question: So house rules vary from book to book? Why?

Millman: They do. Because they are all individual businesses and the Gaming Commission doesn’t demand they follow the same guidelines.

Question: Has a scenario like this come up before?

Millman: Nothing that needed this long to be determined. A few years ago there were questions about the Steelers-Chargers in a late play by Troy Polamalu and a touchdown he may or may not have scored at the end of the game. But even that decision was made pretty quickly on the field.

Question: Is there any way to guard against it happening again?

Millman: There’s no way to guard against human error. The only way to avoid the confusion is if the Gaming Commission did in fact require each book to follow the same house rules. But these are big businesses doing what they think is best for themselves and shareholders, so that’s unlikely. And, it happens so infrequently, it might be more of a hassle than it’s worth for the commission to tackle.