College football rules and Commodore opinions

Every football season, someone in the media will bring up the issue of rules changes. Either a journalist or a talk show host or caller will begin an annual debate of various rules. Three of these collegiate rules almost always find their way into the topic of discussion.

#1:  Pass Interference
 
The current penalty for defensive pass interference is 15 yards and an automatic first down.  If the penalty occurred less than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, it reverts back to the spot of the foul.  If the penalty occurs inside the opponents' two yard line, the ball is placed at the two.
 
Until some time in the 1980's, the original rule placed the ball at the spot of the interference penalty, the same way it applies in the National Football League.
 
The proposal to change this rule picked up steam following a 1980 game between Tulane and Kentucky at the Superdome.  Kentucky had seemingly clinched the win with a dramatic second half comeback.  With 12 seconds left to play in the game, Coach Fran Curci's Wildcats led Tulane 22-21.  The Green Wave had the ball at their own eight yard line, 92 yards away from the goal line and about 60 yards away place kicker Vince Manalla's field goal range.  Tulane quarterback Nickie Hall, who could throw the ball 90 yards through the air, dropped back and lobbed a long bomb to receiver Marcus Anderson.  Anderson had started to separate from the Wildcat defensive back assigned to him and was knocked to the ground before he could catch a wide open pass.  Kentucky was flagged for interference near midfield.  With time for one last play, Hall threw a Hail Mary pass toward the end zone.  Once again, Anderson ran past multiple Kentucky defenders.  The only Wildcat response was to tackle him to prevent Anderson from making a game-clinching catch in the end zone.  As the clock expired, Kentucky was penalized a second consecutive time for interference, placing the ball inside their five yard line.  Since the game could not end on a defensive penalty, Tulane was awarded an extra play with the clock expired.  Manalla, one of a handful of conventional kickers left but unlike most anybody else, a barefoot conventional kicker, booted a chip shot field goal for the Tulane win.  The two penalties, good for almost 90 yards, allowed the Green Wave to stay on course for a bowl bid.
 
#2: When The Ball Carrier Is Ruled Down
 
The ball carrier is ruled down any time any part of his body other than his hands or feet touch the ground.  No contact needs to be made.  A player who falls down on his own or who catches a ball on his knees is immediately down at that spot.  This rule came into effect in the early 1930s 
 
In the NFL, a player is not down until a defensive player makes contact while the player is down, or a defensive player causes the ball carrier to go down.
 
#3: The Stoppage Of The Clock For First Downs
 
In modern college football history, the clock has always stopped every time a team earns a first down.  It doesn't start until the chain gang has reset and the referee has signaled for the clock to start. 
 
The NFL does not have this rule and college games average about 15-25 more plays per game.
 
Recently, I asked Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson and three Commodore players to voice their opinions on these three rules changes.  Here are their responses along with my opinion for what it's worth.
 
Pass Interference
 
Coach Johnson:  I like it just the way it is for right now.  We've been playing that way for years and years.  I don't like changing rules in college just to make them like the NFL.  This isn't pro football.   I don't want to coach pro football; I want to coach college football.
 
Marlon White:  Being an offensive player, I would prefer the rule to go back to the spot of the foul plus a first down.  If you had made the catch and not been interfered with, the ball would be down at the spot, so why not assess the penalty at that distance?
 
Kevin Joyce: Personally, I'd keep the rule at 15 yards because defensively, you don't want to make a penalty 40 yards down the field and let them get the ball right there.  We aren't pros; we're still amateurs, and we're going to make mistakes.  To have a penalty like that at the spot of the foul is a little harsh.
 
Josh Eames: I think the rule is fine the way it is now.  It's been in the college game for a few years now, and everyone is used to it.  I think if you changed the rule, it's going to change the momentum of games like crazy. So, I favor sticking with it the way it is now.
 
Howell Peiser:  I prefer the old rule.  Sure, it makes it tougher on the officials to call the game, but then again so does holding.  Yes, it can determine the outcome of a game, just like it did in the Kentucky-Tulane game more than a quarter century ago.  However, the rule can be used by the defense to equally determine the outcome of a game.  Under the current rule, let's set up this scenario:  With 25 seconds to go in the game Team A trails Team B by four points and has the ball at their 10 yard line with all three timeouts left.  Team A can stop the clock for three plays.  Let's say they commit intentional pass interference penalties, really delivering cheap shots at the receivers trying to force them out of the game (15 yards for a personal foul is the same as 15 yards for pass interference).  Giving up 15 yards is no different than playing a prevent defense and allowing a 15 yard completion wherein the offense would elect to call an immediate timeout. Three plays later, there would be maybe one or two seconds on the clock, and Team A would still need 45 yards to go to win the game.  Team B would still have the option of committing pass interference on the final play if they absolutely had to do so and only be penalized to the 30 yard line.  Team A would still have to go 30 yards.
 
When The Ball Carrier Is Down
 
Coach Johnson: Again, I favor the college rule.  The ball carrier should be ruled down even if the defensive player does not touch him.  The play should end whenever the player touches the ground.
 
Marlon White: I'd rather be allowed to get up after touching the ground.  Why be penalized for going down to make a great catch or for tripping over your own two feet?  Let me get up and run after making that catch.
 
Kevin Joyce: You cannot help it if the field is slippery.  I'd say change the rule to allow the player to get up and go.  A lot of times, slips and falls are due to the conditions of the surface at the field you are playing on, and I don't think you should be forced to stop for that.  If you can get up in the pros, you should be able to get up here.
 
Josh Eames: Again, I favor the current rule for the same reason I favor keeping the interference rule the same.  It's been in the game for so long, if they changed it, it would make the defenses play differently.  That's part of what college football is.  When you say the NFL rule is different, that's how the NFL is and that's what distinguishes the two leagues.
 
Howell Peiser: I favor the NFL rule.  Why should a slippery playing surface be allowed to make a game-saving tackle?  Force the defense to make the stop, not the elements.  A crafty groundkeeper could help a bigger, slower team win a home game by making the sidelines slippery and making it more opportune to run power plays between the tackles. 
 
Clock Stopping On First Down
 
Coach Johnson: It would help speed the game up, but I'd rather watch five more plays than go to my car earlier. 
 
When asked if it could it help Vanderbilt by having five to 10 fewer plays per game
 
Coach Johnson: It depends on whether we're ahead or behind.  Depth-wise, it could possibly help us, but again, this is college football, and we play by college football rules.
 
Marlon White: I'd rather see the clock stop on FD because that's how we are accustomed to running our offense.  Our offense can run smoother, and our quarterbacks can better know what to do (with the clock stopped long enough to get info from the sideline), so I'd prefer the FD clock stopping to stay the way it is.
 
Kevin Joyce: Keep it where the clock stops for the chains on first downs.  You shouldn't leave it up to the refs and the chain gang to control the speed of the game.  I think the speed of the game should be left on the field and not on the sidelines.
 
When asked whether fewer plays would help Vanderbilt depth-wise
 
Kevin Joyce: No.  The only people who control how we do on the field are us.  It's how well we are conditioned and how well we play that determines the outcome of the game.  It's not about how much time and how many plays we run; it's all about what we do out here on the practice field and during the off-season.
 
Josh Eames: I actually like the clock stoppage rule because it gives me more time to rest (spoken with a chuckle).  In the NFL, the pros have all day every day to prepare (strategy-wise) for playing without the clock stopping.  In college, you are going to classes and doing homework, so you don't have enough time to prepare to work the two-minute offense as proficiently as the pro players do.
 
Howell Peiser: I think the game is too long, and it is causing television viewers to tune out of games.  Football games should last about 120-130 scrimmage plays.  When two excellent short passers hook up, games can last 150-160 plays and take four hours.  Selfishly, I think the rule would help Vanderbilt more than almost any other on-the-field rule.  Not only would it allow the starters to stay on the field for a higher percentage of the scrimmage plays, it would force the players to think more for themselves and rely less on the coaches on the sidelines and in the press box.  Vanderbilt's football players are all-American thinkers.

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