The NCAA Football Rules Committee said changes would modestly reduce the number of plays in the game, something the committee will study closely during the 2023 season. (Photo by OVCSports.com)
By Dan Verdun
Rules changes approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel Thursday are being met with mixed reviews from Illinois FCS coaches, but all are willing to see how these measures play out on the field come fall.
The oversight panel approved a number of measures “intended to continue the effort to control the flow of the game and encourage more consistent game management,” according to ncaa.org.
How it will look
While the NCAA measures address other aspects of the sport, foremost is that the game clock will continue to run when a first down is gained. Previously, the game clock stopped after a first down was gained, and the clock restarted when the offense was awarded the fresh set of downs.
Under the new rule, the game clock will continue to be stopped when a first down is gained during the last two minutes of either half.
“This rule change is a small step intended to reduce the overall game time and will give us some time to review the impact of the change,” Kirby Smart, co-chair of the committee, said on ncaa.org. Smart is the head coach at the University of Georgia.
Part of the NCAA’s decision and selling point is that by reducing the number of plays, it therefore assists with player safety.
While true, the overseers of the college game are very much concerned with the length of games in recent years. The average college game has lengthened by four minutes since 2017, and is now up to an average of three hours, 22 minutes.
In an article on The Athletic last September, Seth Emerson said the overriding reason why game times have increased is passing.
“The evolution of college football offenses toward being more pass-heavy leads to more scoring, which results in clock stoppages but also more first downs and more incompletions — although incompletions are also down because teams are becoming better at passing, thus leading to all those first downs, touchdowns and field goals. It’s not that teams are passing more, it’s that they’re good at it,” Emerson wrote.
Meanwhile, the number of running plays, which inherently means more times the clock will run after a play, has gone down.
TV timeouts and replay reviews — and the occasion long weather delay — also add time.
The jury is still out
“I think the game’s evolving. If you follow NFL and Division I football, there’s going to be rules changes every year,” Western Illinois head coach Myers Hendrickson said. “You have to adapt. I’m supportive of whatever rules changes happen, but I’m also really supportive of anything we can do from a player safety standpoint.”
Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said, “I don’t spend too much time worrying (about rules changes). I look at them and set it aside. Whatever the rules are, we’ll play by them. Both teams will have to do it.”
Eastern Illinois head coach Chris Wilkerson isn’t necessarily sold.
“It all still remains to be seen,” he said. “The biggest thing is that it appears they’re concerned about the length of the games. There are a lot of ways to look at it. Certainly people’s attention spans are a lot less. Nobody is going to shrink the amount of commercials that we have because those pay the bills.”
Stopping the clock after first downs has been one of the rules that differentiated college football from the NFL since 1968. However, with last week’s decision, the NCAA changes put the game more in line with pro football.
“The NFL timing rules are in place for a very valid reason,” Wilkerson said. “No. 1, they play with 55ish players so their rosters are much smaller (than ours). So, the media timeouts and the length of games determine the number of snaps and that helps them because their squad sizes are not as big as our collegiate rosters.
“I have some mixed emotions about it. Personally, I think the timing rules are valid the way they are and I would hate to see them make some of these drastic adjustments. The volume of snaps we get at the collegiate level with the size of our rosters helps us with player development. And it does sometimes show your depth, or lack thereof.”
Wilkerson, a former EIU defensive lineman now in his second year as Panther head coach, noted the rule change will reduce the number of possessions that each team will have.
“Right now we know statistically the number of possessions approximately per half and per game,” Wilkerson said. “All of a sudden, you’re going to be down a possession or two per half. It makes each possession that much more valuable.”
EIU offensive coordinator Joe Davis said he doesn’t “necessarily love” the rule change, but is all for anything involving player safety.
“Is taking six, seven, eight plays off of a game going to make a big difference? I don’t know that,” Davis said. “I don’t know that there’s science behind that quite yet, but I do get the heart of the rule.”
Like Wilkerson, Davis understands the rule will likely result in fewer possessions per game.
“What you do with the ball is more important than ever,” Davis said. “You’ve got to make the most of every possession.”
Illinois State senior quarterback Zack Annexstad said, “As an offense, we want to run as many plays a game as possible, but at the end of the day I don’t get to make the rules . . . We’ll be prepared for sure.”
On the other side of the ball, Illinois State defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp said, “It’s going to make a bunch of OCs mad. Their stats are going to go way down.
“I’m happier than hell. I just think what are we trying to do (with the length of games)? We want to talk about how important it is to protect kids and keep them healthy and take hits off of them, then why would you not follow through with that?”
Niekamp, entering his sixth season as coordinator for head coach Brock Spack’s Redbirds, has talked to game officials about the change.
“They believe that it’s going to take up to seven plays off a game. So, do the math. For us, we play 11 games so that’s 77 snaps, that’s at least one football game. (If) you’re playing FBS, that’s another set, so you’re looking at more snaps. That’s a game and a quarter,” Niekamp said. “Over the course of a season, four years in school, five years that you’re in school, that’s four or five football games that you’re saving off the grand total of your life. That’s pretty big.”
Western’s Hendrickson said, “Shorten games? I don’t know about that piece of it. If it’s going to improve player safety, then I’m all for it.”
Southern’s Hill said, “The game needs to be sped up. It hurts the fan experience. Games have gotten too long, especially with the replay reviews added in.”
A former Illinois State player himself, Niekamp began his coaching career in 1998 under then-ISU head coach Todd Berry. He spent time on Berry’s FBS coaching staffs at Army and Louisiana-Monroe.
Niekamp reiterated why he is in favor of the rule change.
“It’s good for the game because it doesn’t make any sense for a game to go four hours. That’s kind of silly,” he said. “I get it; I love football as much as anybody. I watch football nonstop. I go home and watch football games. I coach football, but I also don’t want it to take four hours either . . . Offensive stats will go down. Defensive stats will go up. But at the end of the day, it’s did you win or lose? That’s all that matters.”
Two former Southern Illinois players now in the pros — one of offense and one on defense — shared their opinions.
“That’s what we’re doing right now with the XFL,” Orlando Guardians center Ze’Veyon Furcron said. “Once the ball is spotted, the clock is running. It makes everything more fast-paced. I think it would be a good addition to college.”
Defensive back Roman Tatum said, “It makes the offense get plays off faster. Nobody wants to wait around while they’re watching football. It would make the game more exciting because now the team has to be ready to move on to the next play versus taking their sweet ole time when the clock is stopped.”
Other approved rule changes
+Banning the use of consecutive timeouts by a team.
+Carrying over a foul to the second or fourth quarter rather than playing an untimed down.
“We’ll make the adjustments to be as successful as we possibly can be,” Wilkerson said.