College Football Rules In Focus: The Run-Pass Inconsistency

As you prepare for the new college football season, consider the ways in which college football’s rules reveal substantial inconsistencies between and among certain kinds of plays. We’re going to take a look at a few such inconsistencies this week, beginning with the noticeable split between the ways in which run-based possession and pass-based possession are treated in the end zone.

Our story begins with the photo above: In September of 2000, Florida’s Jabar Gaffney caught a Jesse Palmer pass for a split second before Tennessee defender Willie Miles raked the ball from his hands. The official on the near sideline ruled the play a catch, concluding — quite reasonably — that the moment Gaffney caught the ball, he had obtained possession in the end zone. With no need to run or otherwise move following the procurement of possession, Gaffney had completed the act of scoring a touchdown. The fact that he possessed the ball for less than a full second was secondary and ultimately irrelevant.

Ever since that moment, which is now 14 years ago, college football’s rulemakers have sought to apply more restrictions to the concept of legal pass possession in the end zone. Having one foot down with possession for a split second no longer cuts the cake. Receivers are expected to come down with two feet and complete the “process of a catch.”

Need evidence? Video has proved to be elusive, but twice on October 22, 2011, receivers caught passes in the end zone just as Jabar Gaffney did in 2000. However, due to the heightened standards for legal pass possession in the end zone, neither one was given a touchdown.

In a game between Navy and East Carolina, Navy receiver Matt Aiken had seemingly scored a go-ahead touchdown late in regulation, but the rulebook’s adjusted standards took it away from him, and ECU held on for a 38-35 victory. Earlier that same day, a Boise State receiver got one foot down in the end zone with the ball in his hands, but with the action of the play being allowed to continue past that point (call it the “Gaffney Threshold” if you’d like), Air Force defender Josh Hall swiped the ball away and claimed an interception that was given to him by the officials.

In the 2000 Florida-Tennessee game, the catching of a pass in the end zone meant an instantaneous ruling of a touchdown. In 2011 and subsequent years, officials wait to see if a pass is held for more than a split second. Right or wrong, pass catchers are held to a high standard for legal possession in the end zone.

The same is not true for running plays, and a key play from a 2013 regular-season game illustrated this point to perfection.


Watch Oklahoma’s game-changing fake field goal in last year’s Bedlam Series contest against Oklahoma State, which denied the Cowboys the Big 12 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, all while sending the Sooners to the Sugar Bowl against Alabama:

Notice how Oklahoma kicker Michael Hunnicutt catches the ball at the 2 and then runs into the end zone. This play was properly ruled a touchdown, but the fact that it was a correct call only amplifies the extent to which rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns are held to different (inconsistent) standards. As soon as Hunnicutt brought the ball to the plane of the goal line, he had scored. For a runner and not a pass catcher, this unwritten but quite real principle of “instantaneous end-zone possession” results in a touchdown.

Go back and watch the video one more time, asking yourself this question in light of the fact that the ball was knocked from Hunnicutt with a jarring hit right after he broke the plane of the goal line as a runner: “If Hunnicutt had caught the pass in the end zone and not at the 2, and had lost the ball a split second after initially clasping the ball with both hands, would the play have been a touchdown?”

Based on the rulings from the Navy-ECU and Boise State-Air Force games on October 22, 2011, not to mention subsequent situations in more recent years, the answer most likely would be “no.”

Some fans might like this. Other fans might not. Yet, the point is rather clear: The college football rulebook, accompanied by points of (applied) emphasis as they pertain to officiating mechanics, holds inconsistent views toward legal run-based possession and legal pass-based possession in the end zone. There are few greater conceptual inconsistencies in the sport’s rule structure than this one. Be prepared to notice this dynamic at work in the coming season.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |