There are a lot of rules differences between the NFL on Sunday and the NCAA on Saturdays. One that is often misunderstood is when a punt becomes a touchback.
In the NFL, as long as the player who downs the ball has not touched in the end zone, then he can down the ball short of the goal line even if the ball has broken the plane. But in college, it has nothing to do with the position of the player — it’s all about the position of the ball.
In two plays on Saturday, you had the college rule shown as it is written.
During the Oklahoma State-Kansas game with the Cowboys leading 21-0 with 2:18 left in the second quarter, Kansas punted from OSU’s 46-yard line on fourth-and-19.
As Kansas’ Justin McKay recovered the ball, he was standing at the 1-yard line, but the ball had broken the plane, so therefore it was considered to have been touched in the end zone and was ruled a touchback.
The other example was shown with 12:14 to go in the third quarter of the Minnesota-Penn State game with the Gophers leading 24-10.
On fourth-and-5, the Gophers were punting from the Nittany Lions’ 40-yard line. Minnesota’s Jake Filkins helped keep the ball from landing in the end zone but Logan Hutton, the player who downed it, was actually lying on the goal line. Here, the ball did not break the plane so it was then downed at the 1/2-yard line.
The key to remember here is in the NFL, it’s the position of the player that matters. In the NCAA, it’s the position of the ball that dictates whether or not a punt results in a touchback.
It does seem hard to believe, but the NCAA is much stricter with its taunting rules than the NFL.
One specific play during the Texas A&M-Mississippi State game on Saturday exhibited how NCAA’s crackdown on taunting has changed in recent years.
Mississippi State was kicking off with 14:53 left in the game with A&M up 37-27 when Trey Williams ran the kickoff 97 yards for a score. Williams was obviously excited about his play and dove from the 3-yard line and flipped into the end zone. Here is the flip:
Under NCAA rules, this is a foul for taunting. In 2011, the NCAA changed the taunting rule to say that if taunting occurred in the field during the play, it would be considered a live-ball foul.
Under the old rules prior to 2011, this penalty would have been enforced as a dead-ball foul and assessed on the ensuing kickoff. Now the penalty is enforced from the start of the foul (in this case the 3-yard line), and a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty is assessed and the touchdown is taken away.
Bottom line is this is a very severe penalty, but the NCAA is bullishly-intent in taking away actions that could be considered taunting or unsportsmanlike from its game.
For the record, Texas A&M had the ball placed back at the 18, but the Aggies still went on to score three plays later.
There was a very unusual play in the Texas-West Virginia game where Longhorns QB Case McCoy lost his helmet.
With 9:48 remaining in the second quarter and Texas at second-and-10 from its own 13-yard line, McCoy dropped back and WVU lineman Will Clarke rushed in, and in his attempt to tackle McCoy the QB’s helmet popped off.
When McCoy’s helmet came off it was not by way of a foul, even though some people thought it was at first.
Instead, Clarke’s arm was around McCoy’s neck. On this play there was no striking motion and there was no grabbing of any helmet opening.
When McCoy’s helmet came off, the play was over immediately at that point. Even if McCoy would have fumbled the ball, it wouldn’t have stood. When the runner’s helmet comes off (and only the runner gets this kind of protection), the play is over immediately.
The other part of this play that was interesting was that WVU called a timeout after McCoy had departed to the sidelines. So then the question was, could McCoy come back in by virtue of West Virginia’s timeout?
The answer is no. A team can use a timeout to buy its own player’s way back into the game if his helmet came off the previous play, but it can’t be the opponent’s timeout. That’s why McCoy had to stay out for the one play.