College refs work Hall of Fame game

CANTON, Ohio -- A crew of officials with college experience worked the Hall of Fame game Sunday night, filling in for regulars who are locked out in a labor dispute with the NFL.

It was a glimpse of what's to come if the NFL and the officials' union fail to reach an agreement before the season openers. And it didn't take long to have a gaffe.

Craig Ochoa, who has worked Big Ten games, was the referee for the game between the New Orleans Saints and the Arizona Cardinals. Ochoa has eight years of experience in BCS conferences and 16 years officiating Division III games.

He flipped a commemorative coin at midfield to start the game, then incorrectly announced the result to the crowd, saying that New Orleans had won the toss and deferred.

Then, starting to walk away, he caught his mistake.

"Correction, Arizona won the coin toss," he said.

The fill-ins had several rough moments.

After New Orleans scored on its first possession, several Saints came in to block for the extra point and gestured to the officials to point out that they had reported for the play. Coming out of the 2-minute warning in the first half, Ochoa announced that the previous play was under review, then corrected himself and said it was not.

The officials had trouble spotting the ball after a punt that involved a penalty, repeatedly moving the ball after consultations and a discussion with Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt.

"We made so many mistakes out there, I am in no position to critique anyone," Whisenhunt said.

The Saints won the game 17-10. Even though both teams used their full rosters, there were only six penalties marked off for 34 yards.

"Hey listen, it was their first game, just like it was my first game, just like it was our team's first game," Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said. "Everybody's getting the rust off. I thought the flow of the game was good. Hey, it was fine."

The other five officials also have worked college games. Most of them also have experience in other professional leagues, such as the Arena League.

Umpire Timothy Morris has worked 16 years in BCS conferences, including the Pac-12. Head linesman Kevin Akin has six years in Division II. Line judge Esteban Garza has one year in Division III. Field judge Rusty Spindel had 25 years in BCS conferences. Side judge Dwayne Strozier has worked 12 years in Division III. Back judge Mark Wetzel has five years in Division II.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said Saturday that the league and the officials' union had talks last week. The NFL has been training replacement officials for a couple of months to be ready for preseason games and the regular season, should the sides fail to reach an agreement.

The league also used replacements for the opening weekend of the 2001 season, then reached a deal with the officials' union.