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Gorillas in stripes reflect on championship game
Gorillas Joe Blubaugh and Mark Stewart, fourth and third from the right, pose with the NCAA officiating crew prior to the start of the national championship football game on Jan. 9.

Gorillas in stripes reflect on championship game

Two Pitt State alumni had that experience on January 9 when Alabama and Clemson met in a championship game that went down to the wire.

For the guys in black and white, the College Football Playoff National Championship is their Super Bowl and the experience of a lifetime. Two Pitt State alumni had that experience on January 9 when Alabama and Clemson met in a championship game that went down to the wire.

Joe Blubaugh, BSET 1997, and Mark Stewart, BS 1991, were the two Gorillas selected for the nine-member officiating crew for the championship.

“The entire experience was everything you imagine and hope it will be,” Stewart said. “Two extremely talented teams, a fabulous venue with a record crowd, and a highly competitive game that comes right down to the wire. It was an instant classic, and I had the best view imaginable.”

Sportswriters were hard pressed to find enough superlatives to describe the game, in which Clemson came back from a two-touchdown deficit to win the title with just a second left on the clock.

Call dispute

Clemson Head Football Coach Dabo Swinney expresses his opinion about a call to Field Judge Joe Blubaugh during the national championship game on Jan. 9.

Blubaugh said the atmosphere for the national championship was electric, even in the days leading up to the game.

“There was definitely a buzz in the air you could feel as soon as we arrived in Tampa,” Blubaugh said. “Here were two teams that played a highly competitive game the year before so we were expecting the same for the rematch.”

For Blubaugh and Stewart, working the game was the culmination of years of hard work. As Big 12 officials, that means continual study and review, in addition to working as many as 13 games a season.

The two of them officiated 26 Division I games this past football season, alone. Both are also veterans of the MIAA.

“The Big 12 expects a very high standard of performance every week,” Stewart said. “Every play of every game is evaluated, so we are used to scrutiny of our work. Mistakes happen when we get surprised by something we haven't seen or thought about before. That's why we watch so much video, do rules study, etc.”

Blubaugh said weekly meetings, performance reviews and rules study pay off in high-pressure game situations.

“When we step on the field, the training kicks in and regardless of the circumstances, we are totally focused on what we need to be,” Blubaugh said. “During the game our responsibilities are very ritualistic in nature. We go through a pre-snap routine every play to make sure each position on the field is covering their area of responsibility. If all of us are doing our job in unison it cuts down on the potential for any mistakes to happen.”

Blubaugh and Stewart said officiating the 2017 national championship game was an experience they’ll always cherish.

“I was able to work this game with eight officials who I consider to be some of the very best at what we do, as well as some of my very best friends,” Stewart said. “The fact that we had two Gorillas and four officials who started our careers in the MIAA was really special.”

“I was able to work with a great group of officials,” Blubaugh added. “(These) are guys I’ve known for years and respect. It was also memorable because my wife and two oldest daughters were able to be a part of the trip.  Our families sacrifice a lot during the year and it was gratifying having them there with me.”

Both Stewart and Blubaugh maintain close ties to their alma mater. They were among a number of PSU alumni, who are now football officials, who played important roles in the construction of new officials’ dressing rooms at Carnie Smith Stadium in 2011.

Stewart signals touchdown

Line Judge Mark Stewart signals a touchdown during the KU-K-State football game earlier in the season.

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