Timing rules are precise. They give us specific directions when to start or stop the clock. They also tell us whether or not the clock is to start on the snap. Timing considerations are based on how the previous play ended or the results of penalty enforcement. However, it is possible for a team to exploit timing rules to place the opponent at a disadvantage.
To counter a team gaining an unfair timing benefit, the referee has the authority to alter normal timing rules. That is done by starting or stopping the clock when a team illegally conserves or consumes time (NFHS 3-4-6; NCAA 3-4-3).
Play 1: Team A leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running when A1 false starts with 30 seconds remaining in the game. Ruling 1: A five-yard dead ball penalty is assessed against team A. Normal timing rules call for the clock to start on the ready, but if the referee believed the foul was committed to consume time, the clock should start on the snap. Team A would benefit from the clock starting on the ready. Without altering standard timing rules, team A could continue to commit dead-ball fouls until time runs out.
Play 2: Team A leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running when team A stays in the huddle and intentionally takes a delay penalty. Ruling 2: In NFHS, the clock starts on the snap after any accepted delay of game penalty (3-4-3i). There is no need to alter timing rules to compensate for team A deliberately stalling. In NCAA, the clock starts on the ready after a delay foul if the clock was running (3-2-5a-4). However, the referee would have the discretion in that situation to have the clock start on the snap.
Play 3: Team B leads, 7-6, and the game clock is running. Before the snap, B1 crosses the neutral zone and contacts the snapper. Ruling 3: That is encroachment (NFHS) or offside (NCAA). After the five-yard penalty is enforced, the referee should not restart the clock. To do so would put team A at a timing disadvantage because team B’s illegal act caused more time to be consumed.
A related rule (NFHS 3-5-7k; NCAA 3-4-3) can be invoked if there is any unusual delay in getting the ball ready for play. There is no penalty if neither team is to blame for the holdup.
Play 4: A1’s fumble is followed by a scramble to recover the ball. The officials cannot immediately tell who has the football. Ruling 4: Any official close to the pile should signal the clock to stop. If a team A player has the ball and a first down was not made, officials should wind the clock immediately. If a first down was made, the clock remains stopped until the next ready signal. If a team B player has the ball, the clock remains stopped due to a change of team possession.
Play 5: Team A is in a hurry-up offense near the end of the first half. A1 is tackled inbounds short of the lineto gain near the sideline. When relaying the ball to the umpire, the linesman throws an errant pass that lands several yards from the inbounds spot. Ruling 5: The referee can stop the clock until the ball is spotted and then signal the clock to start. No team is at fault for the delay.
Consuming time by failing to unpile in a timely manner after a down ends can cause officials to alter normal timing rules. You typically see that tactic used by the team ahead in the score.
Play 6: Team A is trying to catch up late in the fourth quarter. After a running play, B1 intentionally lays on the runner to prevent him from getting up. Ruling 6: In NFHS, the officials should stop the clock when B1 fails to unpile. That is a five-yard penalty for delay of game (3-6-2b) and the clock next starts on the snap. In NCAA, the referee may order the clock to stop when B1 fails to unpile. There is no foul, but the clock next starts on the snap (3-4-3).
After a penalty is enforced for an illegal forward pass to conserve time, the clock next starts on the ready, even if the pass is incomplete (NFHS 3-4-6; NCAA 3-2-5a-8). That keeps team A from getting the benefit of stopping the clock after committing an illegal act.
In NCAA, the clock starts on the snap when team A is penalized for delay and it is in scrimmage-kick formation (3-2-5a-4). Referee’s judgment is not involved. For NFHS, the clock always starts on the snap after a delay of game penalty is accepted (3-4-3i). In the rare case a delay penalty is declined, the clock starts on the ready if the clock was running when the delay occurred.
When a fumble goes out of bounds in advance of the spot of the fumble, the clock is stopped when the ball touches out of bounds. In NCAA, the game clock next starts on the referee’s signal (3-2-5a-11). The rule applies only to team A fumbles. In NFHS, the clock next starts on the snap regardless of which team fumbled the ball forward and out of bounds (3-4-3a).
Written by Judson Howard, a retired official from Los Angeles. He officiated more than 20 years, many at the NCAA Division I level.