College football’s pass interference rule is similar to the NFL’s. But the punishment for breaking the NFL rule can be a lot worse, and the professionals also have to deal with an “illegal contact” rule that changes how pass defense works.
What qualifies as interference is basically the same in college football and in the NFL.
There are other, related rules. We’ll get to those. But pass interference is simple.
The NCAA’s college rule starts like this:
Defensive pass interference is contact beyond the neutral zone by a [defensive] player whose intent to impede an eligible opponent is obvious and could prevent the opponent the opportunity of receiving a catchable forward pass. When in question, a legal forward pass is catchable.
It’s not pass interference in these cases:
When, after the snap, opposing players immediately charge and establish contact with opponents at a point that is within one yard beyond the neutral zone.
When two or more eligible players are making a simultaneous and bona fide attempt to reach, catch or bat the pass.
When a [defensive] player legally contacts an opponent before the pass is thrown.
There’s another thing about weird special-teams plays in there, but you get it.
Incidental contact can happen while a defender and a receiver try to make a play on the ball. That’s not a penalty. Neither is contact by a defender within a yard of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, you know pass interference when you see it, and so do officials.
The NFL rule on pass interference is not substantively different:
It is pass interference by either team when any act by a player more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage significantly hinders an eligible player’s opportunity to catch the ball. Pass interference can only occur when a forward pass is thrown from behind the line of scrimmage, regardless of whether the pass is legal or illegal, or whether it crosses the line.
The NFL has a long list of prohibited acts here, but again, they include just what you’d expect: any “contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch,” playing through a guy’s back, hooking his arm, cutting off his running path without playing the ball, pushing off him, etc.
Both college and the NFL also have offensive pass interference rules.
At both levels, the offense can’t block the defense beyond the line of scrimmage while the ball’s in the air. Receivers aren’t allowed to push off defenders. Certain kinds of pick routes, in which receivers get in the way of DBs while the ball’s in the air, are illegal. Those depend on how incidental the offense can convince the officials the contact is.
But there’s a big difference in what defenders can do at the two levels.
Both sports have “illegal contact” rules to punish defenders for GETTIN’ TOO PHYSICAL beyond the line of scrimmage. Illegal contact is pass interference’s rulebook cousin.
This is where the rules in the NFL are a lot tougher on defenders. In the pros, defenders can “chuck” or jam or joust with receivers for the first five yards. After that, they’re not allowed to initiate contact. The penalty for illegal contact is five yards and an automatic first down.
In college, the five-yard window doesn’t exist. Defenders can’t initiate contact with receivers while the ball’s in the air, but they can joust with them all the way down the field until the QB throws. DBs get to beat up on receivers a lot longer in college games.
The punishment for pass interference can be way more severe in the NFL.
In college, the penalty for defensive pass interference is 15 yards if the foul happened more than that distance downfield. If it happened closer to the line of scrimmage, the ball goes to the spot of the foul. So in college, if a receiver gets hauled down while trying to catch a deep ball 50 yards downfield, the offense doesn’t get those 50 yards. It gets 15.
In the NFL, the same penalty moves the offense to the spot of the foul. That’s why you see periodic 60-yard pass interference calls. The league considered moving to college’s 15-yard rule after 2017. It didn’t, though.
Both rulebooks have exceptions for pass interference in or around the end zone. The NFL puts the ball at the 1-yard line for defensive PI in the end zone. College puts the ball at the 2 if the snap came from between the defense’s 2 and 17. If the snap came from inside the 2, the penalty for DPI just moves it half the distance.
All pass interference carries an automatic first down.
In short: College DBs have it way easier than their NFL counterparts.
They can get away with more, and the penalty when they get caught doesn’t carry as much risk as pass interference in the pros.