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Zebra Report: Play Clock-Gate Explained

Sep 22, 2010 – 8:35 AM
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Matt Snyder

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Saturday night, Notre Dame lost to Michigan State on a very exciting fake field goal that ended up going for a game-winning Spartans touchdown. In the aftermath, in what seems far too frequently the case nowadays, the masses had to find a way to rain on the MSU parade.By the way, when you say "not taking anything away ... but ... " you most certainly are trying to take something away. Otherwise you wouldn't say anything.

Basically, there are several still photos bouncing around that show the play clock at zero before Michigan State snapped the ball.

Having been trained in the same manner collegiate officials are trained -- and being a back judge, which is the position responsible for watching the play clock -- my immediate reaction was the still-photo wasn't good enough. I wanted to see the replay in live motion. And my thoughts were confirmed: the ball was snapped just milliseconds after the picture was taken.

If delay of game was called like the game clock, or like a shot-clock in basketball, that would have been a penalty.

But, in football, the way the NFL, most NCAA conferences and most high school associations teach officials to approach the penalty, that is not delay of game. The Big East explained as much the next day.

The spirit of the delay of game rule is not to "catch" teams who might snap the ball right as the playclock strikes zero. It's to prevent excessive clock milking and to keep the pace of the game flowing.

Thus, officials are taught to see the clock strike zero and then look at the snapper (less than a second after, but still allowing a slight pause). If, by this time, the ball has started to move, we're told to let it go. If no advantage has been gained, there's no reason to call it. I've done so at least five times this season at the high school level and not one coach has said a word. Of course, if more than just a quick tick is taken, you could argue there's an advantage gained by the offense, so a penalty must be called. And I have called a few that took more than a half-second before starting the snap. It's a bit of a fine line we're asked to walk.

Please take note that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly seems to be familiar with the mechanics, as he said the outrage was "splitting hairs." You can watch the video below, and try to catch the play clock in the upper right or left sides of the scoreboard.

Now, if you think this is ridiculous, you have to get in line. Just don't shoot the messenger. I'm only telling you how it's dictated to be called and the mechanic that has been in place for years. It's called like this all the time and only noticed in high-profile plays.

This feels like a case similar to the Calvin Johnson non-catch in week 1 of the NFL -- where the fans should direct their venom at the powers-that-be, not the officials who were doing as they've been told. And, like in the Johnson play, it's probably a very stupid rule/mechanic.

• Great job by the crew working the Clemson-Auburn game to catch the illegal snap. Missing that call would have cost Auburn the game, and instead the correct team was penalized. When the replay was shown in slow motion, it may have looked like an obvious little move by the long-snapper, but down in the trenches only the interior defensive linemen and the umpire are likely to catch it. And had the umpire glanced away for a split-second, he'd have blown the call.

• Reader Craig M. asks: While at the Oregon State-Louisville game we noticed that the stadium video crew did not replay anything remotely controversial on the huge, very expensive new screen in the stadium. Is there a rule, either NCAA or Pac-10, that prevents this?

The code of ethics in the rulebook states: "on- and off-the-record criticism of officials to players or to the public shall be considered unethical," but that rule is referring to coaches. And simply showing a replay isn't criticism.

In Section 1 of the rulebook, it states that the P.A. announcer and video and audio people are bound by the rules, but there is no rule about what is allowed to be replayed.

These are the closest two examples in the rulebook, and they really aren't closely related to the question. But I definitely know what Craig means. This seems to be some sort of unwritten and unspoken professional courtesy many schools grant the officials -- like, "hey guys, we'll try not to get you mobbed by an angry crowd."

Also, I think some stadiums are more apt to hold back on replays than others, but that's purely anecdotal.

Fallacy of the Week

I think many people are misunderstanding the horse-collar rule, so here we go.

Pop quiz: Of the following situations, which is not a horse-collar penalty?

A. A defensive end busts around the corner and catches a running back right as he is about to hit the hole. The defender pulls down the ballcarrier by grabbing the inside of the back collar of the runner's shoulder pads.

B. While on a long breakaway, a ballcarrier is caught from behind. The defender grabs the inside of the back collar of the shoulder pads and pulls the ballcarrier back to himself. Then he releases the collar and tackles the ballcarrier with both arms around his waist.

C. While a quarterback is standing in the pocket, a defensive player yanks him down by the side collar of the shoulder pads.

D. A defender grabs the inside of the back collar of the shoulder pads of a runner in the open field and then loses hold and the runner breaks free.

Answer: None of the above scenarios is illegal.

In order to be a horse-collar penalty, a defender must immediately pull the ballcarrier down to the ground by the inside of the back collar, the side collar of the shoulder pads or the jersey at the back of the neck. This does not apply to a player with the ball still inside the tackle box, even if it's a quarterback in the pocket.

Please spread the word on this one. Far too few people actually know the rule.

Have a question or comment involving officiating? Don't be shy. E-mail me at or simply drop it in the comments section below. Also, feel free to submit future plays to my e-mail address for examination, possibly even in future columns. I guarantee a response to serious inquiries.
Filed under: Sports
Tagged: zebra report