- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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If the NCAA Football Rules Committee gets its way, college football teams no longer will be penalized 15 yards if one of its players really didn’t target an opposing player.
But teams could actually be penalized for delay of game for – get this – playing too fast.
A few coaches of teams that utilize no-huddle, hurry-up offenses – which are becoming more and more common at the FBS level – immediately blasted the proposed substitution rules change, saying its only intention is to slow them down.
“It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. “And what’s most ridiculous is did you see what the penalty is going to be called? Delay of game! How is that a delay of game? That’s the ultimate rules committee decision. Make the game slower and call it delay of game.”
The NCAA committee recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, excluding the final two minutes of each half. So in effect, offenses won’t be allowed to snap the ball until the play clock reaches 29 seconds or less. If the offense snaps the ball before then, it would be penalized five yards for delay of game. Under current rules, defenses aren’t guaranteed an opportunity to substitute unless the offense subs first.
“First off, [I] doubt it will pass,” Washington State coach Mike Leach said. “Second, it’s ridiculous. All this tinkering is ridiculous. I think it deteriorates the game. It’s always been a game of creativity and strategy. So anytime someone doesn’t want to go back to the drawing board or re-work their solutions to problems, then what they do is to beg for a rule. I think it’s disgusting.”
The rules changes proposed by the NCAA Football Rules Committee will be submitted to the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel for discussion on March 6.
In an NCAA statement, the NCAA Football Rules Committee said “research indicated that teams with fast-paced, no-huddle offenses rarely snap the ball with 30 seconds or more on the play clock.” The NCAA statement also said the proposed rules change also “aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.” In the NCAA’s non-rules change years, proposals can only be made for safety reasons or for modifications that enhance the intent of a previous rule change, according to the NCAA statement.
Leach and Rodriguez aren’t buying that slowing down hurry-up offenses would make players safer.
“Where’s all the data that proves this is a player safety issue? I don’t buy it,” Rodriguez said. “What about making it so you can’t blitz seven guys? That’s a dangerous thing for a quarterback.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team also runs an uptempo offense, wants to know if there is actual proof that uptempo offenses cause more injuries to players.
"Is there documented medical evidence that supports this rule change that tempo offenses are putting players at a higher degree of risk than others? If there is then show it to us," Freeze told ESPN.com Wednesday night. "Where is it? They're going to have to show us some evidence. If there's not any evidence, then they should table it.
"You can do it the last two minutes of the game. Isn't that when you should be most fatigued?"
Added Leach: “That’s really insulting that they are hiding behind player safety just because somebody wants an advantage. That’s crazy.”
This past season, fast-paced, no-huddle offenses continued to operate faster and faster in college football. Baylor, which led FBS teams in scoring (52.4 points) and total offense (618.8 yards), averaged 82.6 offensive plays in 13 games. Texas Tech averaged a whopping 87.3 offensive plays under first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury, and Fresno State averaged 83.6 offensive plays.
But some coaches, including Alabama’s Nick Saban and Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, have criticized hurry-up offenses, arguing that they give offenses an unfair advantage and don’t allow them to adequately substitute defensive players.
“All you’re trying to do is get lined up [on defense],” Saban told ESPN.com in September. “You can’t play specialty third-down stuff. You can’t hardly scheme anything. The most important thing is to get the call so the guys can get lined up, and it’s got to be a simple call. The offense kind of knows what you’re doing."
But Leach contends it’s unfair to handcuff offenses because defenses can’t keep up with the pace.
“My suggestion is rather than spending a bunch of time coming up with a bunch of really stupid rules, spend that time coaching harder,” Leach said. “Worry about your own team and try to make your product better rather than trying to change the game so you don’t have to do anything.”
Freeze also believes that allowing defenses to rotate players in and out more frequently under this rule will put offensive linemen who are a part of uptempo offenses at more risk for injury because they will potentially face fresher defensive linemen every few snaps.
"If anything, you may be making it more dangerous for the offensive line because they're going to face 12 five-star defensive linemen from Alabama rotating every three plays," he said.
To Freeze, taking away the opportunity to snap the ball as fast as possible is taking away a major fundamental advantage that any offense can use against opposing defenses, which are allowed as much movement as possible before a play is even run.
"Since the start of football, defenses can line up wherever they want to," Freeze said. "They can move around as much as they want to before the snap. … They can do whatever they want to do, that's fine. I coach defense, too, that's great. The one thing that has always been offenses' deal is snapping the ball. That's the only thing we have."
The proposed change to the sport’s new targeting rules seems like a no-brainer after a slew of controversial decisions during the 2013 season. Under current NCAA rules, which went into effect this past season, players penalized for targeting opposing players were ejected from the contest and their teams were penalized 15 yards. But officials were allowed to review the play and determine whether a targeting foul actually occurred. If officials determined the play wasn’t targeting, the player’s ejection was overturned but the 15-yard penalty was still enforced.
If the proposed rule change is approved, the ejection and the penalty won’t be enforced. However, if a defender is penalized for a personal foul in conjunction with the overturned targeting foul, such as roughing the passer, a 15-yard penalty will still be enforced.
In games in which instant replay is not in use, the committee recommended an option to permit on-field officials to review targeting calls during halftime that were made during the first half. Officials then could reverse the targeting call and allow the player to compete in the second half.
ESPN.com’s Ted Miller and Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.