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The pop pass isn't going away, but referees are watching it more closely

If your team (or your rival) uses these popular run/pass options, just know things will need to be done by the book.

Lots of teams use these plays, legally and illegally. This photo choice is not a personal allegation against Gus Malzahn, Auburn fans.
Lots of teams use these plays, legally and illegally. This photo choice is not a personal allegation against Gus Malzahn, Auburn fans.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Like so many things in the game, it’s legal deception," Big 12 head of officiating Walt Anderson told SB Nation at Big 12 Media Days about controversial run/pass option plays. "The difficulty comes when you start approaching the edge of what’s legal and illegal deception."

Offseason discussions among Big 12 officials centered around the conference's new dedication to making sure offensive linemen follow NCAA rules and stay within three yards of the line of scrimmage on passes. The NCAA announced in March that all officials would pay closer attention to the illegal man downfield rule, in response to these RPO or pop pass plays.

"We could see this problem happening as offenses and systems began to change. We knew there was no way to work tomorrow’s game with just seven officials. We were already behind the curve with seven," Anderson said.

The Big 12 recently added an eighth on-field official, potentially contributing to a national trend. Adding another official means having more eyes to watch offensive linemen -- specifically, where those linemen are when a pass is released. That could make it harder for offenses to get away with having linemen this far downfield on a pass:

Hang on a minute. That's just that Gus Malzahn Oregon crap that my team doesn't run.

Who are you?

I'm the skeptical college football fan interrupting this story to ask why this is important to me.

While a few teams like Auburn and Kansas State used to be known for these pop pass plays, now many offenses use plays that send linemen downfield, setting up delayed passes out of what appear to be runs. This new enforcement strategy monitors those plays more closely.

Just how popular is this concept?

Oh, only popular among most of the top 25 last year -- Baylor, Ohio State, Clemson, Oregon, Arizona, TCU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn, Kansas State, Oklahoma and others. Even stodgy Alabama tried it.

You either cheer for it or against it, or both, but the difference is that going forward, teams are going to have to do it by the rule book.

Back up, what the heck is the run-pass option?

Our friend Ian Boyd has an awesome, in-depth piece that breaks down the concept's popularity and variety. It allows for at least three distinct plays to occur from a single call because of a layered system of reads.


Remember the read option play that exploded in popularity a few years back? The QB takes a snap and looks at a defensive end. If that DE is trying to tackle him, the QB hands the ball to a running back. But if the DE is sitting back, the QB runs it himself.


The RPO adds a layer. Defenses started to answer by moving defenders to compensate for either option. To counter the counter, a QB who keeps the ball will start to run and then make a second read. If linebackers and defensive backs are coming after him, he'll pop a pass to the open receiver they left. If the defenders stay in coverage, the QB will take the cushion and pick up yards.

So why is everyone worried about the offensive line?

As the concept has become popular, Big 12 officials have noticed an increase in offensive linemen drifting. Mobile quarterbacks can hold the ball longer, so these plays are runs for a long time, then suddenly become passes.

Way back in the dark ages, the 1990s, NCAA rules allowed a three-yard zone for linemen. If your OL went past that as the quarterback dropped back, a penalty would be called for an ineligible man downfield. But on a standard run play, linemen can move downfield with the ball carrier. Back then, runs were runs and passes were passes.

So modern offenses are exploiting a rule made a long time ago?

That's the argument. Linemen trick defenses into playing the run, and many pop passes go off with ineligible receivers (linemen) downfield. Monitoring the progress of five linemen and the release of a pass that might or might not come isn't something officiating crews have had to focus on, until now.

"When a pass is caught, in general, that's where the audience's point of reference exists," Anderson said. "And you're asking, ‘How can a guy catch a ball eight yards downfield with a lineman standing right there next to him?' When in fact, when the ball was in the air, maybe (the lineman) was only three yards downfield, maybe he wasn't."

Does that mean the rules will change eventually?

Take us home, Walt:

To be clear, nothing is changing. No rule is being changed right now. It’s a tough rule, and we’re going to have to work at getting better at it. And the rules committee will have to continue to study it.

Maybe you dedicate replay to it. Maybe you do end up having to change the rule and it goes back to one yard (downfield) instead of three. That’s a lot easier to officiate.

We’re going to assume the rule doesn’t get changed. It’s not our job to change to the rules. It’s our job to officiate them.


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