Football is a game of inches. But sometimes, it’s about a foot.
College football’s Week 11 slate offered a number of plays near sidelines or endlines where teams were reminded that receivers must have control of the ball and put down an entire foot — from heel-to-toe or toe-to-heel — in order for a catch to count.
From the NCAA rulebook: “If one foot first lands inbounds and the receiver has possession and firm control of the ball, it is a catch or interception even though a subsequent step or fall takes the receiver out of bounds.”
While the rules differ from the NFL, where you need to have control and have two feet in bounds on plays near the sidelines, the interpretation is the same.
Missouri, Texas Tech and several other schools had plays Saturday where a player caught a ball and thought he had one whole foot in bounds — but replays showed that either the player’s heel or toes were out of bounds upon landing. To their credit, many referees didn’t need instant replay to make the proper call as they have been trained to have eagle-eye vision on these plays near the sidelines.
While the rulebook doesn’t specifically cover heel-to-toe catches, there is a casebook play that helps define how to rule in these instances:
Play No. 37 talks about a receiver with his back to the sidelines who controls a pass and his right foot comes down first with his toes hitting in bounds. Then in the normal motion of taking a step backwards, his heel hits out of bounds. The ruling is an incomplete pass.
The one caveat to this rule comes when there is a drag or delay before the heel hits out of bounds — then a pass would be complete. But in the majority of instances, look for the entire foot in order to figure out if a catch will count.
Let’s take a look at other plays that caught my attention on Saturday.
THE GAME: Miami vs. Virginia
THE SITUATION: Virginia had the ball, second-and-10 on its own 12-yard line with 4:24 remaining in the game. Miami led 38-35.
THE PLAY: Virginia quarterback Michael Rocco dropped back and under pressure, within the pocket, threw the ball away. It was ruled intentional grounding and deemed to be a safety because the spot of the foul was in the end zone. The play was reviewed and the call stood.
MY TAKE: While it looked to most people like Rocco’s throw happened in the field of play and not the end zone, I’m glad the ruling on the field was not changed because the replay official shouldn’t have been reviewing this in the first place. The actual spot of a foul is not reviewable, even in this case when it involved a potential scoring play.
THE GAME: Arizona State vs. USC
THE SITUATION: Southern California had the ball, third-and-goal at the Arizona State 4-yard line with 11:38 remaining in the first half. The game was tied 7-7.
THE PLAY: USC quarterback Matt Barkley found Robert Woods in the end zone for an apparent touchdown pass. However, Woods was called for offensive pass interference against ASU safety Alden Darby, so the play was wiped out and USC was hit with a 15-yard penalty.
MY TAKE: I didn’t like this call because it wasn’t what you would traditionally think of as an illegal pick by the receiver. Darby was moving to his left when he and Woods collided and the pass ended up being thrown to Woods for the score.
If Barkley had thrown to the receiver who was supposed to be covered by Darby, then it may have been clearly considered a pick. But you have to look at the whole play — there was not any intent to interfere and this incidental contact should not have been a foul.
THE GAME: Penn State at Nebraska
THE SITUATION: Penn State had the ball, second-and-goal on the Nebraska 3-yard line with 8:39 left in the game. Nebraska led 27-23.
THE PLAY: Penn State QB Matthew McGloin threw to tight end Matt Lehman, who caught the ball and dove for the end zone. Lehman was hit by Nebraska linebacker David Santos and the ball came loose. The ball was ruled a fumble on the field, which was recovered by Nebraska for a touchback. It was reviewed, and the play stood.
MY TAKE: I, like pretty much everyone else in the country watching, thought this should have been reversed to a touchdown. There appeared to be a clear shot down the goal line that showed that Lehman had control of the ball when it first broke the plane. It wasn’t until after that when the ball came loose.
I understand the need to have indisputable visual evidence in order to reverse a call, but when looking at all the shots it seems this one had to be a score. Even the high end-zone shot helped, because you could see the ball did not come loose until Lehman was hit by Nebraska’s Santos. Piece that together with the sideline shot and you could see the contact by Lehman did not occur until after the ball had broken the plane.
It’s always judgment, even in replay. In this case, most people’s judgment differed from the replay official’s.