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Boston College vs. Clemson: Was This, In Fact, A Safety?

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I don't know ... looks like a safety.

Jim Rogash

I was curious about this play when it happened, so I wanted to take a closer look at BC's could-have-been safety against Clemson. Here was the situation:

The Tigers started their second offensive possession of the game on their own 9 yard line. After dropping RB Adam Choice for a 1-yard loss, Clemson faced a 2nd and 11 from its own 8 yard line. Out of the shotgun, Clemson QB Cole Stoudt takes a five step drop that puts him behind his own goalline. Wujciak badly beats his man, Clemson guard #77 Reid Webster to the right, heads straight for Stoudt, wraps him up just as Stoudt lazily throws the ball which lands at around the 4 - 4 and a half yard line, well behind the original line of scrimmage.

I believe the refs pointed to the Clemson RB that released out of the backfield as the eligible receiver in the vicinity of the pass, but by the time the ball is thrown he's at least 10 yards away from the incomplete pass.

There are three parts of the NCAA's rule governing whether or not the play is considered to be intentional grounding (rule 7-3-2):

If the quarterback is attempting to save yardage by throwing an incomplete pass, the:

-- Passer must be outside of the tackle box
-- Pass must land beyond the original line of scrimmage, and 
-- In an area where there is an eligible receiver

If a QB intentionally grounds a forward pass in his end zone to save loss of yardage, the other team is awarded a safety.

Clearly from the above GIF, Stoudt makes no effort to move beyond the tackle box, nor does the ball pass the original line of scrimmage (the Clemson 8), falling at least 3 yards short of the LOS. So the question becomes whether the late-releasing Clemson QB is the eligible receiver for which the pass was intended.

In the past, the rule used to distinguish whether the receiver in the area has a "reasonable opportunity" to make the catch. I think we'd agree that the Clemson RB does not. However, the "reasonable opportunity" clause was later removed. So long as the passer throws the ball into an area where there's an eligible receiver, it's a legal play.

I've watched the above GIF a bunch of times and I don't think you can reasonably say that the Clemson RB is in the area of where that ball is thrown. The result of the play probably should have been a Boston College safety, giving the Eagles an early 2-0 lead and the ball back after the free kick.

Normally, coaches aren't able to challenge a play in which intentional grounding is suspected but not called on the field. But just this past April, the NCAA made a few editorial changes to its football rules, including a clarification that would allow review of intentional grounding situations when the penalty would result in a safety (the same set of editorial changes that make Florida State's new road white jerseys with gold numbers illegal):

Allow Intentional Grounding to be reviewable in clearly obvious situations when the penalty results in a safety.
Amend Rule 12-3-2 (FR-107) by adding a new paragraph f:
"f. Location of the passer when he is obviously in the field of play and a ruling of intentional grounding would result in a safety by penalty."

Bummer, basically.

Of course, Boston College would go on to lose by 4 points, so an early safety wouldn't have swung the game on its own. But it tough to think about how the game could have broken differently had the BC defense put 2 points on the board and the Eagles offense gotten the ball with what was likely to be good field position (instead of starting its second drive of the game from its own 6 yard line).