Arkansas beat No. 18 Ole Miss in overtime Saturday night, thanks to a miracle, THE BACKWARD HAIL MARY or THE HOG-AND-LADDER. On fourth-and-25 in overtime, the Razorbacks needed a conversion, and they got one. After a 15-ish yard pass, Hunter Henry heaved the ball backward, the ball bounced over to running Alex Collins, and Collins made a mad dash to the first down marker.
Arkansas went on to score a TD, score a do-or-die two-point conversion and walk away with a 53-52 win.
However, after the game, some fans had a gripe. Isn't there a rule to prevent this exact type of play? There is, kinda: Rule 7-2-2-a-Exc. 2.
On fourth down before a change of team possession, when a Team A fumble is caught or recovered by a Team A player other than the fumbler, the ball is dead. If the catch or recovery is beyond the spot of the fumble, the ball is returned to the spot of the fumble. If the catch or recovery is behind the spot of the fumble, the ball remains at the spot of the catch or recovery.
It's the college version of the Holy Roller rule. On a fourth down, you can't just "fumble" the ball and hope somebody picks it up. If you do fumble, you're the only person who can advance it.
So when Henry passes the ball backwards, and it hits the ground, isn't that a fumble? Why is Collins allowed to advance the ball?
There is a very critical distinction. Henry passes the ball backwards; he doesn't fumble it backwards. Here's the textbook definition of a fumble, emphasis added:
To fumble the ball is to lose player possession by any act other than passing, kicking or successful handing. The status of the ball is a fumble.
So when a player passes the ball backward and it hits the ground, it isn't a fumble. It's just a pass that's not incomplete because it's not a forward pass. This also applies to shotgun snaps, which the rulebook specifies are backward passes. When we see the ball hit the ground on these plays, our minds jolt to FUMBLE, but technically, we're wrong.
The thing is, 99.9 percent of the time, it's just a technicality. In almost every situation, a backward pass and a fumble are treated the same. "Backward pass" is mentioned 59 times in the rule book, and the word "fumble" is within a few words on almost all of them. But there are two scenarios in which this pair is separated:
All players are eligible to touch, catch or recover a fumble (Exceptions: Rules 7-2- 2-a-Exc.2 and 8-3-2-d-5) or a backward pass.
7-2-2-a-Exc. 2 is the rule we already mentioned above. 8-3-2-d-5 is the same, but for PATs and two-point conversions.
For whatever reason, in this exact scenario, this critical distinction between fumbles and backward passes is made. The rulemakers apparently feel it's important to preserve the ability of players to freely toss the ball backward.
Some rules experts agree:
The advance at Ole Miss is legal. You can advance a backward pass even on 4th down.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) November 8, 2015
Advance was legal because it was a backward pass, not a fumble. Anyone is allowed to advance a backward pass. #OleMissvsArk— Dave Cutaia (@CFBRulesExpert) November 8, 2015
I have a funny feeling the rule ends up hurting more than it helps. There's the occasional situation in which a legit fumble and recovery is wiped out by this rule, and it just causes confusion on plays like this one. But, well, it's the rule, and the refs correctly applied it.
Some Ole Miss fans are tweeting around a section of the official scorer's guide, which instructs scorers to treat incomplete backwards passes as fumbles. This is not the rulebook, which the refs use. This is the official scorer's guide, which helps the people in the press box produce the best stat sheet. For their purposes, fumbles and backwards passes are the same thing. For the refs' purposes, they are functionally different, and that's what's important.
So lateral away, desperate players. The chances you succeed are next to none. Your backward pass could be picked off or your team might not field it well or your teammate might be in a worse position to make things happen than you, or a million other things besides your team winning might happen.
But rest assured that your team won't lose on a technicality if you toss it back, because beautiful chaos is rulebook-approved.