Feb 12, 2015 10:04 PM

Change in illegal man downfield rule could boost defenses

The Associated Press

The play still annoys many Alabama fans who are convinced it was illegal. No, not the Kick-Six that Auburn used to beat the Crimson Tide on the last play of the 2013 Iron Bowl. It was the touchdown the Tigers scored before the famous missed field goal that really burns 'Bama fans.

Auburn tied the score late in the fourth quarter when Nick Marshall flipped a pass to Sammie Coates over a defense that was drawn in by a run-blocking offensive line. A couple of Auburn linemen appear to have strayed down the field a bit farther than the 3 yards allowed on the play, but it wasn't called and the rest is history.

Starting next season, offenses that try to confuse defenses by throwing behind run-blocking lines could have less room to work their games of deception.

The NCAA rules committee has proposed changing the illegal man downfield penalty Rule 7, Article 10 in the NCAA book shortening the distance linemen can move downfield before the ball is thrown to 1 yard, which matches the NFL rule.

"I think it's a rule that the defensive coaches are going to be very excited about," Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Thursday. "Specifically, the ones that are keying hard on the offensive line for their run-pass reads. I think that's a big one right there for them."

And, of course, offensive coaches who fought off a proposal by the rules committee to slow down up-tempo attacks last year see it differently.

"It's the continuation of a trend where defensive people try to change the rules rather than try to stop the advances in offense," said new Montana coach Bob Stitt, who used spread schemes at Division II Colorado School of Mines that were considered among the most creative in college football.

NCAA coordinator of officials Rogers Redding said Wednesday the proposal was made because it was difficult for officials to determine if a lineman had gone past the 3-yard limit before a pass was released.

The proposal still needs to be approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel in March. If it does and most do the change would go into effect next season.

"It definitely will affect offenses that are trying to throw the ball downfield while the box is blocking run with pop passes," Stitt said.

Play-action passes have been a part of football for decades. Fake a handoff, have the offensive linemen block as it is a running play, then throw a pass over a defense playing run.

The concept has evolved with the rise of spread offenses, said Chris Brown, the author of "The Essential Smart Football."

It started with plays that could be changed at the line to quick screen passes behind run-blocking lines and that led to so-called packaged plays.

"Five, six, seven years ago coaches started realizing we can actually tell our linemen to just run block, block a run play, and give the quarterbacks the option to not just handoff or throw a screen, he can also maybe throw the ball down the field," Brown said.

Allowing linemen to drift 3 yards from the line of scrimmage provided a lot of time for a quarterback to make a decision.

"As coaches started experimenting with this stuff they noticed it really started messing with defenses," Brown said.

To say the least.

"Once you get down to a certain point, I mean, come on, it's not even fair," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops told The Oklahoman after the Sooners lost to Kansas State in October and allowed a 62-yard pop pass for a touchdown to Wildcats fullback Glenn Gronkowski. "You've got offensive linemen running down the field and they're throwing the ball. That's not the way football was meant to be played."

Stitt said the number of missed penalties for illegal man downfield gets exaggerated and it wasn't enough to justify changing the rule.

"We throw passes off of runs a lot like that, and I bet when we stopped the tape we might have been illegal two or three times all season," he said.

Illegal man downfield will still be a tough call for officials. And a change in the rule won't cause Stitt, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Baylor's Art Briles, Arizona's Rich Rodriguez and the dozens of other coaches running spread offenses to tear up their playbooks.

"I don't think these plays are going away and I don't think they should go away. And you see them in the NFL where the rules are pretty strict," Brown said. "But I think it will get rid of what I call the broken video game plays, where there is a guy wide open and it looks like the defenders are broken game logic."


Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP


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