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Why the Penn State field goal block that won the Big Ten in 2016 is now an illegal play

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The leaping kick block is now outlawed.

Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

CHICAGO – In March, the NFL banned players from charging forward and leaping to block field goals. Earlier this summer, the NCAA followed suit. The leaping block is dead.

The NCAA’s new football rulebook for 2017 strips away two provisions that made the leaping block permissible up until now. It’s long been a foul for a player to charge at the line of scrimmage, leap to block a field goal try, and land on someone. Now, it’s a foul whether the player lands on anyone or not. And just as critically, this line is gone:

“It is not a foul if the player leaps from in or behind the neutral zone.”

Before, players couldn’t be flagged for leaping if they reached the line of scrimmage before taking flight. That’s now irrelevant. If a defender lines up more than a yard from the line of scrimmage, he can’t “run forward” and jump to block a field goal or PAT.

The only way it’s legal now is “if the player was aligned in a stationary position within one yard of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped.” Because field goals happen so quickly, that makes a charging leap block close to impossible — especially without landing on somebody, which would make the play illegal anyway.

If this rule existed last year, the Big Ten’s play of the year would’ve been illegal.

Penn State beat then-No. 2 Ohio State in Happy Valley in October, and the game’s decisive play was a Marcus Allen field goal block that turned into a 60-yard touchdown runback by teammate Grant Haley. It took PSU from behind to ahead in the fourth quarter, and it held on to win the game, the East, and later the whole Big Ten. This play turned out to be the moment not just of the night, but of the Big Ten season.

The play was legal because, while Allen had clearly run forward from the so-called “second level” to block the kick, he didn’t jump until he’d reached the neutral zone. People disagree about whether he landed on an Ohio State lineman or just contacted him from the side on his way down, but only where he leapt from mattered. Note that Allen doesn’t take off until he’s at the black line on the game telecast.

At Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday, Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials Bill Carollo confirmed that Allen’s huge block in 2016 would’ve been no good in 2017.

“Last year, legal. This year, illegal,” Carollo says.

“It got a little technical why it was legal: because he did come from the second level, but if you came from the second level and you took off — almost like a long jumper, you know, from the board there — from the line of scrimmage,” Carollo told reporters.

“If you take off from the line of scrimmage, you can jump, and it’s legal, and you can land on someone and it’s OK. And he does land on the right guard’s, I think, shoulder, on his left shoulder. But he took off from the right spot. If he would’ve taken off maybe a foot beyond the line of scrimmage … Now we’re saying, any time you come from the second level. You don’t even have to land on anybody.”

This rule only applies to field goals and extra points. Punts have different rules, just as they had previously.

The loss of the leaping block is sad, but it makes sense.

These plays look cool as hell, and there are few things more exciting in football than a blocked-kick runback. But they’re dangerous, and it’s difficult to fault the Big Ten for nixing an occasionally awesome play that always poses a medical risk.

“It didn’t happen on that play, but they cut block the guy and flip him on his head,” Carollo said. “It’s a dangerous play for the guy who’s trying to leap and block a field goal.”

It’s easy to see an upsetting vision being realized. If a player goes aerial, a blocker can flip him. He can plummet headfirst into the turf, and nobody wants that.

With the NFL scrapping the leap, too, it’s completely extinct at the highest levels of American football. The last great, legal leaping block in history was Marcus Allen’s.